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Discovery paves way for “smart” surgical devices

The University of British Columbia’s Srikantha Phani has discovered how to make soft materials, such as plastics and foam, remember their shapes.

Phani, who is Canada Research Chair in Dynamics of Lattice Material and Devices, and his collaborator Jayachandran Kizhakkedathu at the Centre for Blood Research believe their unique “shape memory effect” will lead to lifesaving new biomedical treatments and tools.

Until now, creating the shape memory effect meant changing an object’s molecular structure. However, by attaching an invisible polymer coating—similar in appearance to a toothbrush—to the surface of soft material, Phani and Kizhakkedathu have been able to achieve the same effect without moving molecules.

“The structures at work are invisible to the naked eye, but their effect is tangible,” says Phani.

A video of a piece of plastic with the polymer coating shows the shape memory effect in action, but Phani says the effect could also work on other soft materials such as smooth muscle or collagen.

“A particularly exciting aspect of our research is that the surface polymer coating we used is blood compatible. This feature opens up many applications in surgical devices such as smart devices with shape changing ability, sensors, and actuators for soft material systems for artificial muscle,” he explains.

Their discovery was published in Angewandte Chemie in April 2011.