Synergizing Softness and Strength: A Revolutionary Approach to Aerogel Engineering for Soft Tissue Regeneration

Synergizing Softness and Strength: A Revolutionary Approach to Aerogel Engineering for Soft Tissue Regeneration

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Materials exhibit a dichotomy between flexibility and stiffness. It sparks curiosity: How can a material be soft yet robust enough to withstand pressure or load? This question is particularly important in soft tissue engineering, where the goal is to replicate the load-bearing properties of soft tissues using biomaterials. Tissues like the human breast or cardiac tissue are incredibly soft and pliable yet possess remarkable strength and resilience, displaying exceptional toughness. These tissues effortlessly revert to their original shape upon compression release, showcasing their intriguing mechanical properties.

In the laboratory of Dr. Jingwei Xie in the Department of Surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, we are engaged in developing various fibrous aerogels for tissue engineering and regenerative applications. However, we encounter a persistent challenge: the inherent conflict between the strength and flexibility of aerogel materials. With their distinctive structure and adaptable design, aerogels have great soft tissue engineering potential. However, their inherent fragility and limited elasticity present formidable obstacles.

Conventional approaches to enhance mechanical properties, often involving increased crosslinking density, tend to worsen brittleness, thereby restricting their suitability for dynamic soft tissues (Figure 1a).

Figure 1. a,  Schematic illustrating the relationship between crosslinking density and mechanical properties of aerogels. Increasing crosslinking density leads to a denser network structure, resulting in a more brittle and rigid material with reduced porosity and flexibility, and conversely, decreasing crosslinking density results in a less mechanically strong material, exacerbating the strength-flexibility conflict inherent in aerogels. b, SEM image illustrating how the entanglement between nanofibers and microfibers mitigates the strength-flexibility conflict in aerogels. The intertwined arrangement of fibers at different length scales enhances the material's mechanical properties, striking a balance between strength and flexibility.

To tackle these challenges, we propose an innovative solution—a hybrid aerogel constructed from self-reinforcing networks of micro- and nanofibers. This groundbreaking technique entails physically entangling nanofiber segments with microfiber pillars, establishing a robust stress distribution system within interconnected fiber networks (Figure 1b).

The optimized hybrid aerogels showcase remarkable specific tensile moduli and fracture energies. Additionally, they exhibit super-elastic characteristics with swift shape recovery. These aerogels exceed established mechanical benchmarks, facilitate rapid tissue ingrowth, encourage extracellular matrix deposition, and incite neovascularization upon subcutaneous implantation. Beyond their mechanical prowess, these hybrid aerogels provide adaptability in engineering soft tissues through minimally invasive procedures. Their potential is further amplified by the capability to integrate magnetically responsive or electrically conductive features, opening avenues for pressure sensing and actuation applications.

Despite aerogels exhibiting promise in various biomedical applications, their mechanical limitations have impeded broader utilization. Previous efforts to enhance mechanical properties often sacrificed crucial aspects such as porosity and flexibility. Our innovative hybrid aerogel tackles this challenge by employing polymeric nanofibers and microfibers, establishing a dual-scale fibrillar network that harmonizes high strength, flexibility, and efficient shape recovery. This groundbreaking aerogel design holds substantial potential to revolutionize regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, and beyond. The entangled fibrillar network serves as both a mechanical support and a facilitator of cellular infiltration, paving the way for applications in load-bearing tissues. As we push the boundaries of aerogel capabilities, the implications for soft tissue engineering become increasingly profound.

In conclusion, our study introduces a paradigm shift in aerogel technology, laying the groundwork for further advancements in regenerative medicine. The hybrid aerogel's capacity to balance strength, flexibility, and cellular response demonstrates a significant advancement in overcoming limitations and unlocking unprecedented possibilities in the field.

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Materials Engineering
Technology and Engineering > Mechanical Engineering > Materials Engineering
Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering
Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Biotechnology > Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering
Biomedical Engineering and Bioengineering
Technology and Engineering > Biological and Physical Engineering > Biomedical Engineering and Bioengineering
Biomedical Materials
Physical Sciences > Materials Science > Biomaterials > Biomedical Materials
Physical Sciences > Materials Science > Biomaterials
Materials Characterization Technique
Physical Sciences > Materials Science > Materials Characterization Technique

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