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‘Soft Matter’ Research Feeds Healing, Cancer Advances

June 14, 2011 – Georgetown assistant professor of physics Daniel Blair and physics professor Jeffrey Urbach are researching the silk that spiders make to explore its use in bone grafts and wound dressings.

With a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Blair says the research may lead one day to more advanced healing techniques.

“If you want to re-grow materials that form skin or the tissues or the organs,” Blair explains, “you need to understand material properties of the thing that the body then recognizes as being itself.”

Stronger than Steel

Blair and his colleagues extract silk from spiders, apply force to it until it breaks down, and study how it forms into threads.

“It’s so versatile,” says Blair of the silk, “It has this ability to be much stronger than steel but yet flexible. It holds water well and the body likes it, it’s not damaging, it’s easy to use, it’s not toxic.”

New Science Center

Blair studies soft matter, or so-called complex liquids such as foams, gels, pastes and polymers. He says soft matter is “a rapidly growing field of physics.”

Soft Matter

Soft matter includes complex liquids, gels, pastes and polymers, such as mayonaise, toothpaste, face cream and shampoo.

Soft matter is found in everyday items such as shampoo, toothpaste and face cream, but may one day have a much wider degree of application in areas such as sustainability and energy storage.

Blair is looking forward to the establishment of Georgetown’s new science center, which will house the Institute for Soft Matter Synthesis and Metrology. The institute is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

International Recognition

“At its core, the Institute will provide facilities, technology and outreach focused on soft matter research,” Blair says. “Our hope is to make Georgetown an internationally recognized center for soft materials research.”

He says the institute will take advantage of its proximity to federal agencies such as NIST, NIH and industrial partners to “attract high-quality researchers and new faculty.”

Blair says his lab also studies how cancer cells respond to their environment and measures the strength of those cells.

New Approaches

The scientist and his colleagues apply force to cells, and use a high-precision microscopy technique to measure the reactions in 3D over time. They then examine how the cells move and how strong they are in relation to their surrounding environment.

“What we’re doing is measuring the mechanical strength of not only the cells but the stuff that surrounds them,” Blair says.  “These are new approaches in making measurements in systems that have been dominated by biochemistry.”

The research may one day help cancer researchers understand under what conditions cancer does and doesn’t metastasize.

Remarkably Beautiful

Andrew Zipperer (C’13) has been working in Blair’s lab on a gel produced from the cocoons of silk worms. The gel can be used in biomedical devices, the rising junior explains.

“A coherent, cohesive theory of soft matter is an elusive goal,” he says, noting that the study of soft matter includes physics, engineering, chemistry and biology.

“This research is practical from a biomedical perspective, absolutely necessary from a theoretical one, and – most importantly – remarkably beautiful from an aesthetic perspective,” Zipperer says.

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