When you visit Andrew Steckl’s lab at the University of Cincinnati, you see a nondescript glass box that weaves together different fibers. He sees endless possibility.

UC senior research associate Daewoo Han creates new fibers from coaxial electrospinning in UC professor Andrew Steckl’s Nanoelectronics Laboratory. (Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

Steckl’s lab is coming up with new applications for a fabrication process called coaxial electrospinning, which combines two or more materials into a fine fiber for use in industry, textiles, or even medicine. The machine pumps two or more liquid polymers into a nozzle that drips like a leaky faucet. Once electric voltage is applied, the drip turns into a spiderweb-fine jet composed of a core of one material surrounded by a sheath of another.

“It looks deceptively simple. But the chemistry is the secret sauce,” he says.

This kind of innovation is a key component of the university’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here.

Steckl is an Ohio Eminent Scholar and professor in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. His latest study, published in the journal ChemPlusChem, outlined the many applications of a manufacturing process that combines the amazing properties of one material with the powerful benefits of another.

Electrospinning was invented in 1902 and was first applied to textiles in the 1930s, according to the study. But only now are researchers realizing its full potential, Steckl says. His nanoelectronics laboratory has been preoccupied with new combinations of “ingredients” to take advantage of their unique benefits.

“The beauty is you can have combinations of polymers with properties you don’t normally find in nature,” Steckl says.

Stekl has spent much of the past decade investigating the vast potential of electrospinning.

“This is the best thing since sliced bread — not that I like sliced bread,” the marathon runner says.

A spiderweb-thin fiber shoots from the nozzle in a jet of liquid during the electrospinning process. (Credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services)

For example, researchers can combine a stiff core surrounded by soft, flexible or adhesive material. Or they can create a water-resistant shell surrounding a compound that dissolves quickly in water.

“Or you could put drug molecules on the inside for a treatment surrounded by pain-relief molecules on the outside,” he says.

One drawback has been producing enough material for commercial use. But dozens of companies in the United States and around the world are coming up with large-scale production systems for electrospun fibers. Steckl is working with research partners at UC and other research universities to explore the possibilities.

He and former UC College of Pharmacy professor Giovanni Pauletti want to create more effective contraception using coaxial electrospinning. Pauletti now teaches at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

The electrospun fiber would be a tampon-like application used to trap and kill sperm. Another version could release anti-infective drugs to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, Pauletti says.

“Our preliminary results are encouraging, enough so that our National Institutes of Health proposal has been approved for a five-year study,” Steckl says.

Steckl says they hope to prove the device is both easier to use and more effective than existing sponge-type contraception.

“That’s what the NIH program will confirm,” Steckl says.

Pauletti says besides technical skills, Steckl has a natural gift to bring together people from different scientific backgrounds for a common research goal.

“One of my greatest pleasures is working across disciplines for the benefit of patients,” Pauletti says. “I love to work with him. He is always open to new ideas.”

Steckl also is working with researchers from Johns Hopkins University to replace traditional chemotherapy with localized treatment of brain tumors called glioblastoma.

“Chemotherapy essentially is whole-body treatment. The treatment has to get through the blood-brain barrier, which means the whole-body dose you get must be much higher,” Steckl says. “This can be dangerous and have toxic side effects.”

Steckl and research partners Dr. Henry Brem and Betty Tyler at Johns Hopkins University are pioneering a treatment in which the glioblastoma lesion is removed and a coaxial electrospun capsule is applied to administer the medicine locally over days or weeks. Brem and Tyler previously developed a treatment wafer called Gliadel in 2003 for glioblastoma.

Tyler, who manages the Hunterian Neurosurgical Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, says implanting the Gliadel wafer loaded with chemotherapy at the site of the removed lesion applies medicine where it’s needed most at a concentration that would be difficult to achieve otherwise without exposing a patient to a toxic dose.

“Our laboratory continues to try new targeted methods of delivery, new delivery formulations and new models to increase the beneficial effects,” she says.

So far, Steckl says, animal trials have shown that electrospun fibers provide even better results because surgeons can apply different combinations of treatments that deliver medicine for the desired duration.

“Dr. Steckl’s unique electrospun formulation was appealing to us for multiple reasons,” Tyler explains. “It has the capability to slowly release its pay-load, it’s biocompatible and multiple drugs can be loaded and released from it.”

Tyler says they plan to apply electrospinning to other FDA-approved drugs in unique combinations for the treatment of brain tumors.

“Our hope is to deliver these agents using Dr. Steckl’s technology to ultimately increase therapeutic options for patients with brain tumors,” Tyler says.

Steckl says the large surface area and custom properties of the fibers make them an ideal drug-delivery system. For example, patients who have to take drugs multiple times per day for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease might be able to take a single long-acting dose made from electrospun medicines.

This article was written by Michael Miller, University of Cincinnati. For more information, visit here .