Hydrogel coated tubes

Gel coating could improve comfort of catheters and condoms

Image credit: Felice Frankel

Engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed new slippery and impermeable gel coatings, which could make medical devices more comfortable, and allow for the detection and treatment of some conditions.

Catheters, intravenous lines and other types of surgical tubing are vital for keeping patients healthy and stable while in hospital. For the patients, however, wearing these devices is an uncomfortable experience to be suffered through.

In order to ease the discomfort of these devices, MIT engineers have designed a new gel coating which could be used to provide a more slippery, soft exterior for medical devices.

It is created by bonding a layer of hydrogel – a slippery polymer consisting almost entirely of water – to common elastomers such as latex, silicone or rubber using benzophenone, a molecular solution which creates strong chemical bonds between gel and material when exposed to ultraviolet light. The result is a sandwich-like layered “hydrogel laminate”, which is soft, stretchy, slippery and impermeable to small molecules such as viruses.

The team tried bonding layers of the hydrogel to condoms and various medical devices, and found that the coatings were durable through bending and twisting, and proved extremely slippery: a vital quality for reducing discomfort.

“Our first major focus was catheters, because they are rigid and not very comfortable, and infection of catheters can cause around 50 per cent of readmissions to hospitals,” said German Parada, an MIT graduate student who worked on the project. “We also thought we could apply this to condoms, because existing latex condoms cause lots of sensitivities and allergies, and if you can put drugs in the gel you could have better protection.”

Compounds embedded within the coating could allow for the detection of signs of infection – inflammatory molecules, for example – such as with the addition on pH-sensing molecules. These infections could also be treated by incorporating drugs into the coating.

“We’ve demonstrated hydrogel really has the potential to replace common elastomers,” said Professor Xuanhe Zhao, a researcher in MIT’s department of mechanical engineering. “Now we have a method to integrate gels with other materials. We think this has the potential to be applied to a diverse range of medical devices interfacing with the body.”

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