Ancient Celtic Knots inspire scientific breakthrough

Minute knots and chains have industrial and medical uses

Tue, May 21, 2013, 18:39

Scientists have devised a new molecular technique, inspired by Celtic Knots and trees, which could be used in the treatment of multiple diseases.

Researchers at the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) in NUI Galway have discovered a new process that could be used in the industrial and medical fields.

“Polymerisation is the adding together of many smaller units,” says research assistant to the project’s leader Doctor Wenxin Wang, Ben Newland. “It is one of the most important processes in industrial manufacturing.”

The new process gives scientists a “simple method to produce large quantities of well-defined material”, which could be used in diagnostic, therapeutic and imaging processes in the body Newland says.

The Celtic Knots are an example of the new technique. A single chain is linked repeatedly, wrapping around itself, creating a very dense structure. These structures are needed to carry DNA, and can be used in gene therapies or new forms of drug treatment.

The tree-inspired hyper-branching, could also be used to produce hydrogels. These hydrogels are composed of a soft jelly, in which cells can be suspended. This could be used to deliver cells to damaged areas of the body, Newland said. In conditions like Epidermolysis Bullosa, where connective tissues of the skin tear, this hydrogel would be applied to the wound, using the Celtic Knot as a skin adhesive. The cells could then repair the broken tissue.

As a topical ointment, it might be approved sooner by the FDA, Newland says. Regarding its use on people, Newland concedes this would be a big step, but estimates we could see this within 5 to 10 years.

Newland believes the polymerisation technique itself “will become widespread”, due to its numerous industrial applications in the manufacturing of elastics or higher strength plastic, for example.

Dr Wang, who has pursued this technology since 2007, notes that “although these are early steps, we are looking forward to seeing the future realisation of these structures in a wide range of applications.”

The NFB is involved in international collaborations with biomaterial groups investigating the use of biomaterials in the body.

The research is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board, DEBRA-Ireland and -Austria, and is published today in Nature Communications .