COLLEGE STATION One of the most basic tenets of science is observation, an essential tool with the power not only to prevent but also in some cases redefine failure.
A few years ago, a student in Texas A&M University chemist Karen L. Wooley’s organic nanomaterials-based research laboratory was working to synthesize polymers in hopes of exploiting their protein-like properties. Instead of the anticipated result, he got an amazing one, unexpectedly discovering that they form gels and creating diverse opportunities from materials to medicine in the process.
“One of the most interesting things about research, I think, is when something surprising happens,” Wooley said. “If the student is aware enough and observant enough to realize that what was observed was not expected and then follow through to characterize exactly why it happened and what the molecular structure is that led to that kind of behavior, then it can lead to entirely new research directions.”
After determining precisely how and under what conditions these breakthrough gels formed, Wooley and her team moved on to the somewhat tedious task of refining them. Through further investigation, they learned the gels are based upon various amino acids and polypeptides — the basic components of proteins and natural materials that, when synthetically linked together in unique sequences, can produce gel-like materials with fine-tuned, targeted properties.
Thanks to Wooley’s expertise at scales 100 times thinner than a human hair, the versatility of polymers and happy accidents with her lab, the possibilities are highly adaptable and virtually limitless. For starters, imagine novel tissue engineering scaffolds capable of growing artificial tissue that can be customized to suit the repair or purpose needed. Then consider the next wave in orthopedics — a growth-promoting, bone-like composite made from degradable plant-or-silica-based polymers instead of metal or other permanent irritants.
“Most of our nanoparticles are based on degradable polymers, and we wanted to shift from what were polyesters to polyamides to make protein-like synthetic particles," Wooley said. "As we were synthesizing those polymers, they gelled, which was completely surprising to us. We are looking into using these gels — some of which are very stiff and some that are very flexible — for tissue engineering scaffolds to grow artificial tissues that might then allow for implantation and treatment of various kinds of diseases, from artificial liver for transplant to skin-graft applications.”
Wooley, a distinguished professor of chemistry and holder of the W.T. Doherty-Welch Chair in Chemistry since 2009, will be recognized in March as the first woman to receive the American Chemical Society Award in Polymer Chemistry, a prestigious accolade honoring outstanding fundamental contributions and achievements toward addressing global needs for advanced polymer systems and materials. Her 30-member research group spans seven distinct project areas and has an annual budget of more than $1.5 million, all dedicated toward some pioneering facet of organic polymer-based chemistry focused on creating new matter at the nanoscale level.