Polymer materials play a vital role in today’s medicine. While many applications demand for long-lasting devices, others benefit from materials that disintegrate once their job is done. The design of such materials largely depends on the capability to predict their degradation behavior. Knowing this, a team of researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht in Germany has established a method to quickly and reliably predict the degradation of these polymer materials with sophisticated molecular architectures.

The results have been published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. With the so-called Langmuir technique, the researchers transfer the material into a 2D system, and thereby circumvent the complex transport processes that influence the degradation of three-dimensional objects. They created analytical models describing different polymer architectures that are of particular interest for the design of multifunctional implants and determined the kinetic parameters that describe the degradation of these materials. 

Next, the researchers want to use this data to carry out computer simulations of the decomposition of therapeutic polymer devices. Even so, regulatory authorities already prescribe computer simulations of the performance of such devices—for example, some stents. Moreover, researchers say the insights gained by the 2D degradation studies are certain to improve these simulations. Specifically, by introducing a method to quickly understand and predict the degradation of polymer materials, the researchers are helping to establish new, multifunctional polymers for regenerative medicine.

Background—Multifunctional Biomaterials

An implementation of degradability can be especially helpful for implants such as sutures or staples—objects needed for mechanical support. However, future medical implants are expected to perform much more complex tasks. These degradable devices will, for example, be able to be programmed in a compressed shape and in this way implantable by minimally invasive techniques, release a drug that supports the healing process, recruit the right cells to its surface, and report back on the progress of the recovery. 

Here, degradation is only one out of several functions that are integrated in the materials. Nevertheless, degradation is highly critical, because it changes the material on a molecular level. In order to implement multiple functions into a material, its molecular structure is designed in a distinct, often complex way. Researchers say understanding how degradation affects this molecular architecture is key to ensuring that all the functions are executed as intended.