Sharon Gerecht

HEALING HYDROGEL: Associate Professor Sharon Gerecht, here with postdoc Guoming Sun, calls the properties of the hydrogels “amazing.” (Photo by Will Kirk / Homewood Photography)

Sitting in a petri dish, hydrogel resembles a tiny jellyfish you might come across during a vacation walk along the ocean’s edge. It’s transparent, colorless, and odorless.

Smear it on third-degree burns in mice, however, and its true power is revealed: Within days, those wounds begin to heal. Three weeks later, recovery is so advanced that hair is sprouting on the surface of the rodents’ tender new skin.

“It’s definitely pretty amazing,” says Sharon Gerecht, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and leader of the team that developed the material. (Clinicians from the Johns Hopkins Burn Center at Bayview Medical Center and the School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology were part of that team.) “We were frankly surprised that it worked so well.”

Though the simple substance comprising a water-based, three-dimensional network of polymers has only been tested so far in laboratory mice (studies in pigs are about to begin), Gerecht and her team believe the gel has enormous potential not only for the treatment of human third-degree burns (which reportedly afflict more than 100,000 Americans annually) but also in healing diabetic foot ulcers and other wounds that happen when vital blood vessels carrying oxygen-rich blood have been seriously damaged or destroyed.

Excerpt from Johns Hopkins Engineering magazine, summer 2013. Read More >