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Advanced Materials in Medicine

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Peptide hydrogels: from seed funding to commercialisation

Challenge we’re trying to solve

One of the key engineering challenges in the life science and biomedical sectors is the design and manufacture of bespoke, fully defined non-animal derived scaffolds for 3D cell culture applications, i.e., cell niches. These cell niches underpin a large and growing sector of healthcare industries in the UK and worldwide whether they are used outside of a living organism for the study of cell behaviour, toxicity testing or tissue engineering, or used for the delivery of cells and/or drugs or to promote regeneration of damaged tissues.

The main challenge when designing such materials is the variability of the requirements placed on them depending on the application and cell behaviour targeted. One important factor driving the 3D cell culture market, which is predicted to be worth $1.8b worldwide in 2024, is the recent focus on the development of alternatives to both animal products and testing, not only due to ethical reasons, but also due to a growing body of scientific evidence showing the unreliability of animal derived products and the lack of relevance of animal models. In this context our work addresses a clear and unmet market need.

How we approached it

Researchers from the University of Manchester approached the problem by developing a technological platform for the design of fully defined non-animal-based 3D scaffolds based on the fundamental understanding of the self-assembly and gelation pathways of a “simple and cheap” to produce family of synthetic short proteins i.e.: peptides. These short peptides can be designed to self-assemble into fibrillar structures that entangle and associate into 3D networks in the presence of water and form biophysically relevant hydrogels.

The use of natural peptide ensures that these materials are biocompatible and non-immunogenic making them ideal 3D scaffolds for biomedical applications.

Who was involved

The research was led by Prof Alberto Saiani, School of Natural Sciences, Department of Materials, and Prof Aline F. Miller, School of Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science.

Outcome

Over the past 15 years, their work has focussed on developing a technological platform for the design of fully defined non-animal-based 3D scaffolds. This was achieved through a range of funding including university seed funding, UKRI fellowship and industrial funding. The proof-of-concept work has been finalised and the materials have been commercialised. The current phase of the work focusses on working in collaboration with academics across the biomedical field to demonstrate the applicability of the material to tackle end-users’ challenges. 

The platform technology developed has now been commercialised through a start-up company founded by Prof Saiani and Prof Miller in 2013: Manchester BIOGEL Ltd. They have a licence agreement in place to exploit the know-how developed in their group for hydrogel manufacture.  They are selling the hydrogels for R&D use and are finding applications within 3D cell culture, 3D bioprinting and within drug discovery.