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A gel-like material can be coated onto standard plastic or rubber devices, providing a softer, more slippery exterior. (Credit: Felice Frankel)

A new gel-like material can be coated onto standard plastic or rubber devices, providing a softer, more slippery exterior that can significantly ease a patient’s discomfort. The coating can even be tailored to monitor and treat signs of infection.

The hydrogel coating can be embedded with compounds to sense, for example, inflammatory molecules. Drugs can also be incorporated into and slowly released from the hydrogel coating, to treat inflammation in the body.

The team bonded layers of hydrogel onto various elastomer-based medical devices, including catheters and intravenous tubing. They found that the coatings were extremely durable, withstanding bending and twisting, without cracking. The coatings were also extremely slippery, exhibiting much less friction than standard uncoated catheters — a quality that could reduce patients’ discomfort.

The group developed a technique to bond hydrogels to elastomers by first treating surfaces such as rubber and silicone with benzophenone, a molecular solution that, when exposed to ultraviolet light, creates strong chemical bonds between the elastomer and the hydrogel. They applied these techniques to fabricate a hydrogel laminate. They then put the laminate structure through a battery of mechanical tests and found the structure remained strongly bonded, without tearing or cracking, even when stretched to multiple times its original length.

Even after sharply bending and folding the coated tubing into a knot, the researchers found the hydrogel coating remained strongly bonded to the tubing without causing any tears.

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