New chemical lego blocks for health solutions

IBEC researchers develop new multi-responsive molecules able to self-assemble in water forming fiber-like structures. The so-called discotic molecules show responsiveness to temperature, light, pH, and ionic strength and they might show great potential for medical applications such as drug delivery systems, diagnosis or tissue engineering.

Edgar Fuentes is a PhD student in the Nanoscopy for Nanomedicine Group led by Lorenzo Albertazzi at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). Within this group, Edgar and his colleagues focus on the synthesis of novel smart supramolecular materials for drug delivery.

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More than a year ago, the Group of Albertazzi at IBEC started a fruitful collaboration with the Group of Ilja Voets at ICMS, at the Technical University in Eindhoven. But not only this, two other groups of experts joined this collaboration: the Nanoprobes and Nanoswitches Group led by Pau Gorostiza at IBEC and the Polymer Chemistry and Materials Group led by José Berrocal at Adolphe Merkle Institute in Switzerland. As a result of this great team, researchers have recently reported a highlight paper published by Journal of the American Society of Chemistry (JACS).

The disk-like molecule synthesized in Barcelona incorporated a peptidic part made of lysine (pH responsive), an octaethylene glycol chain responsive to temperature and an azobenzene part which respond to light stimuli. Researchers observe that when combining these parts into a single molecule, the final compound keep responsiveness, changing its charge and shape. And even more fascinating, these changes can promote the disc-like molecules to stack one on top of each other forming a pile of molecules.

According to the researchers: Our system responds in a controlled and reversible fashion to light, temperature, pH, and ionic strength, modulating the assembly−disassembly equilibrium. This is especially interesting for biological applications, such as drug delivery or tissue engineering, where controlling the material performance in a complex environment is challenging”. Edgar Fuentes, first author of the paper, and who spent one week in Eindhoven, working directly with the Voets-Group, thanks to IBEC-ICMS collaboration agreement explains the finding in a very comprehensive way:

We have developed very small “lego pieces” which behave like a switch able to change upon light or other environmental conditions. But the most fascinating is the following: under certain conditions these small pieces can spontaneously interact with many other pieces, forming fiber-like objects in water, 10000-fold thinner than a hair.

Edgar Fuentes, first author of the paper

Reference article: Fuentes, M. Gerth, J. A. Berrocal, C. Matera, P. Gorostiza, I. K. Voets, S. Pujals and L. Albertazzi. An Azobenzene-Based Single-Component Supramolecular Polymer Responsive to Multiple Stimuli in Water. JACS, 2020.