Research Highlights

A new material for reconstructive surgery

A hydrogel material developed at the University of Oxford promises better treatment for a range of surgical applications, including dentistry and reconstructive surgery.

Oxtex hydrogel can be used for a wide range of surgical applications.

Oxtex hydrogel can be used for a wide range of surgical applications.

The hydrogel breakthrough comes from Professor Jan Czernuszka and his team from the University’s Department of Materials, in collaboration with Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital and the University of Malaya. The hydrogel can be used for a wide range of surgical applications, including restorative and general dentistry, treatment of congenital disorders and surgical reconstruction.

Skin has the remarkable ability to grow when put under controlled tension, leading to the creation of additional skin and associated soft tissue. However, existing tissue expansion methods use silicon balloons which have limitations: they are bulky and thus difficult to use for small-scale applications (especially in children), they can be uncomfortable to inflate, and the balloon expands equally in all directions.

Professor Czernuszka’s material overcomes these limitations. In particular it is anisotropic, meaning that it can expand more in one direction than in another, which allows surgeons to accurately control the direction, timing and rate of the material’s expansion in the body. This significantly reduces the risk of soft tissue damage and associated complications, and makes the hydrogel ideal for use in delicate anatomical locations.

One application of the technology is currently undergoing human trials at the University of Malaya – the development of a new treatment for crossbite (where the jaw does not align properly). This involves inserting a hydrogel under the mucous membrane that lines the roof of the mouth. Once inserted, the hydrogel gradually expands as fluid is absorbed, encouraging skin growth over and around the palate. After sufficient skin has been generated to prevent springback, the crossbite can be repaired.

Another key field of use is in dental treatments including restorative dentistry, implant surgery and treatment of periodontal disease. Here again, the expansion of soft tissue in procedures such as dental implant surgery, where bone augmentation is required, will improve the outlook for patients and make it easier to predict the result. In the UK alone 80,000 implants are fitted, with an estimated 50% of cases requiring bone augmentation. The success of the device has led to expanding areas of application, including veterinary plastic surgery – a new field made possible by the device.

The research has led to a highly successful spin-out company, Oxtex, showing that speculative, fundamental collaborative research can result in international collaborations and a commercial product.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Oxford University Innovation Fund

Oxford University Research Impact Article