ChallengeInspired Polymer Synthesis

Modern society faces an array of challenges. New treatments for disease, sources of energy, and greener materials are in demand.  These challenges also reveal interesting scientific questions, which as scientists we seek to answer. The interplay between investigating “challenge-revealed” fundamental questions and synthesizing “challenge–inspired” materials characterizes the overarching philosophy of our research approach.

Materials to Treat Clostridium difficile Infections:

Clostridium difficile (C. diff.) infections are a major healthcare concern because current treatment options are limited, and drug-resistant C. diff. strains are increasingly problematic. C. diff. bacteria in the GI tract produce toxins that target the cells lining the intestine. We are synthesizing materials that can pass through the GI tract and capture these toxins, thereby rendering them inert and mitigating the effects of C. diff. infections.

Antiviral Polymers:

We are developing polyvalent glycopolymers—polymers with multiple virus-binding carbohydrate groups—capable of inhibiting viral infections. The limitations of current vaccines and antiviral drugs make the development of novel antiviral materials paramount. We are developing a series of novel polymers that can bind to the viral surfaces and thereby prevent the virus from infecting cells. In theory, these materials will have high antiviral efficacy and be active against a broad spectrum of pathogens.

Polymers for Extracting Critical Metals from Complex Solutions:

Metal ions in solution can be unwanted toxic contaminants, valuable materials, or both. Many heavy metals are acutely toxic or carcinogenic, and metal contamination of water is an increasing challenge. However, many waste streams—mining effluents, desalination brines, e-waste, etc.—contain high concentrations of valuable metals, which could be extracted in a highly sustainable process. Rare-earth elements (REEs) in particular are integral to many sustainability technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicle motors, and lighting phosphors. As world demand for these metals outpaces supply, new and sustainable sources are needed, as well as more efficient methods of extraction and purification. We are developing metal-binding polymers that have a high affinity for target elements, which could be used in environmental remediation applications—including mining waste processing and water treatment—and for extracting or purifying scarce metals from unconventional sources.

Novel Polymers and Polymerization Catalysts:

Advances in fundamental polymer chemistry lead to new material properties. Consequently, we are interested in developing polymers with unique structures and functionalities. For example, we are developing novel polyesters with high glass transition temperatures, UV-stability, and favorable barrier properties. Additionally, we are designing new olefin metathesis catalysts that are tailored to create polymers of specific architectures. The materials that result from these efforts will both provide key insights into polymer structure-property relationships and enable new applications to be developed.

Development of Drug-Capture Materials and Devices:

The adverse side-effects of chemotherapy are a notorious problem in the treatment of cancer. One approach to mitigating these toxic effects, particularly in liver cancer, is transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), a procedure in which chemotherapy is introduced via catheter directly into the tumor vasculature. Despite this site-specific delivery, however, about half of the chemotherapy dose passes through the tumor, enters systemic circulation, and causes off-target damage. To address this problem, we are developing materials that are capable of capturing this residual chemotherapy from the bloodstream. Ultimately, these materials will be used to construct a device (a “ChemoFilter”) that can be depolyed via catheter “downstream” from the tumor, enabling excess chemotherapy to be intercepted and sequestered before it enters healthy tissue and causes side-effects. This is a multidisciplinary effort sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (R01CA194533; principal investigator, Steven W. Hetts) involving investigators at multiple institutions.



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