Shape Shifting Programmable Matter Promises to be Paradigm-Shifting in Surgery

Materials Studio

biovia-doctorsAdding a time-reliant, shape shifting mechanism to polymer implants will revolutionize how many disorders are treated. Image Source: Flickr User: DFAT photo library

Recently, researchers presented the world with a polymer bud that slowly unfurled itself over the course of two hours into a colorful flower.1 This display was not only beautiful, but also a leap forward in health technology. The polymers that were created and programmed for this task were made with surgery in mind, much like the inception and development of bioadhesives, to provide more viable, less invasive procedures. As researchers continue to explore the next generation of synthetic materials and tissues with innovative lab software, more materials can be designed and program to take these timing pieces into account.

Polymeric Materials in Biomedical Engineering

Shape-shifting materials aren’t anything particularly new. Since the ‘60s, many different shape memory materials have been used in a wide variety of medical, electronic and aerospace applications. Many of the shape shifting polymers that researchers have worked on over the last few decades have been able to transform, either macro- or microscopically. Most of these traditional shape shifting materials come in one of two categories:2

  • Shape changing material – These materials change shape whenever a stimulus is applied and returns to its original form when stimulus is removed.
  • Shape memory material – These materials can return to their original shape, from an altered state, upon application of the correct stimulus.

Previous shape changing and memory polymers have relied on different mechanisms. From swelling of gels via solvent and crosslinking to photoisomerization of comonomers to liquid crystalline transitions, they were able to accomplish their tasks.

There has been, however, one glaring problem that has severely limited their biomedical applications: These chemicals must be triggered. It’s horrendously challenging to trigger an implant with light, specific temperatures, electricity, solvents or magnetic fields once it has already been put into place. By better assessing and modelling potential polymers with modern lab software, scientists may be able to move towards a signalling system more compatible the human body or steer away completely away from a triggered system. There is energy stored in the bonds of polymers and it may be possible to work through and with these bonds to remove the need for external manipulation. Through sophisticated computer software, it will be more straightforward to model and predict the energy stored in these bonds.

Removing Barriers Created by External Stimulation

The group that created the flower mentioned at the top of this post, decided to treat these polymers like a watch: they created a material with a programmed energy release. By storing elastic energy in the covalent cross links and creating reversible crosslinks to hold the new shapes, these investigators were able to create a polymer that shifts in a time-dependent, sequential manner without any external trigger.3 This is a phenomenal discovery, especially when physicians look toward replacing different components of tissues and organs throughout the body. This material can be carefully placed in areas of the body that are hard to reach, where it can slowly reorganize itself without causing severe trauma to the surrounding tissues. Additionally, this has the potential to lead to less invasive surgeries.   

Through innovative lab software, these polymers can be modelled well before researchers ever consider placing a polymer in the human body. This modelling capacity allows investigators to eliminate repetitive testing through automating their modelling tasks. With BIOVIA Materials Studio, comprehensive models can be created to allow researchers to better predict what will work saving both time and money, bring your product to market faster. This is an exciting new realm of biomedical engineering and Materials Studio can help you wade through this previously unexplored terrain. Please contact us today to learn more about how our software options can support the efforts of your lab.

  1. “This delicate flower was created in a lab – and could revolutionise surgery,” September 27, 2016,
  2. “Reversible shape-shifting in polymeric materials,” March 15, 2016,
  3.  “Programming temporal shapeshifting,” September 27, 2016,