Hydrogel work aids in cancer research

A novel inventor

By Jarrett Whitson

Xiuzhi “Susan” Sun has a research career full of patented success.

Sun, a university distinguished professor at Kansas State University, has an achievements list that includes creating the Biomaterials and Technology Lab and receiving 16 U.S. and international patents.

One of her patented technologies is a peptide-based hydrogel called PepGel, which Sun discovered in 2009 while studying peptide structures and adhesion properties with students in her lab. They noticed their sample became a liquid and then turned back into hydrogel. This self-healing trait is what makes PepGel uniquely applicable to tissue engineering as well as testing drug efficacy, toxicity and delivery.

“We were amazed because we thought it could have a lot of life science and medical applications,” said Sun, who researches in the grain science and industry department in the College of Agriculture and the Carl and Melinda Helwig Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in the Carl R. Ice College of Engineering.

The researchers quickly filed and received their first patent in 2014 and have since received three more PepGel-related patents. The research led Sun to create PepGel LLC, a startup company that offers products and services — such as cell expansion and 3D drug testing — to labs and companies.

“PepGel is a novel tool for cancer research because it can aid in designing drugs to provide more accurate testing results,” Sun said.

Sun has been growing various cancer cells in PepGel to study effective drug treatments. Her research shows that some shapes of cancer cells are very easy to cure, while others can develop drug-resistant behavior and present more challenges.

Additionally, Sun and her team have successfully modified PepGel and culture conditions to grow stem cells such as human-induced pluripotent stem cells, or hiPSCs. These cells are derived from skin or blood cells and enable the development of an unlimited source of any type of human cells needed for therapeutic purposes. Sun is using them in 3D models to test the efficacy and toxicity screening of drugs, as well as food compounds and medicines.

“We generated a 3D colony of hepatocytes — a type of liver cell — differentiated from the hiPSCs,” Sun said. “They have very good gene markers that are closer to real human liver cells than other existing technologies. We hope we can generate hepatocytes good enough for liver cell therapy usage, but for now the cells we have are very good for drug testing.”