Fouling is a natural phenomenon that describes the tendency of proteins in water to adhere to nearby surfaces. It’s what causes unwanted deposits of protein to form during some food production or on biomedical implants, causing them to fail. Using her expertise in developing bio-inspired materials for use in human health, R. Helen Zha, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will harness this process found in nature to develop a versatile and accessible approach for modifying solid surfaces. 

With the support of a more than $592,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, Zha will use silk fibroin — a protein that naturally assembles itself — to grow a nanoscale film on the surface of an object. This approach only requires a beaker, water, salt, and the protein, which Zha said makes it biocompatible, safe, ecofriendly, and accessible beyond the walls of a lab.

Zha has demonstrated that this approach can work and, in some cases, even increase the therapeutic benefits of an implant. In research published in ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering, Zha collaborated with Ryan Gilbert, a professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer, to modify the surface of a fibrous scaffold that was developed by Gilbert’s lab in order to encourage the growth of neurites at the site of nerve damage.

Zha is available to discuss the importance of this research, which could expand beyond the protein she and her lab are working with. This approach, she explained, could be applied to any number of proteins and macromolecules.

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