Analysis: Hyaluronic acid has multiple uses in both the cosmetic world and medical industry and new research is looking into how it can be used to help prevent heart failure.

Hyaluronic acid is an extraordinary material. Perhaps an unfamiliar material to most readers, it quickly gains both respect and attention through its propensity to be utilised in both the cosmetic world and medical industry.

Hyaluronic acid is a material found in the body with prominent levels recorded in the skin, cartilage, and bone. It is a natural polymer meaning it is composed of small repeating units joined together to form a long chain. These units can vary in size contributing to a diverse range of functions and applications.

Hyaluronic acid can therefore be described as a one-stop-shop material with versatile roles in healthcare. Discovered first from the liquid within the eye in 1934, hyaluronic acid went on to be manufactured and incorporated into a variety of products such as lip fillers, contact lenses, along with anti-wrinkle creams and youthful performing serums.

Overall, the diversification of this material is credited to its non-toxic and unreactive behaviour when introduced into the body. Hyaluronic acids attractive characteristics are further cemented with its ability to have both anti- and pro-inflammatory actions within the body depending on the polymer length.

It ranges in treatment targets from drops to relieve irritated eyes to more complex degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis. For osteoarthritic patients, hyaluronic acid injection therapy acts in a multitudinous fashion, lubricating the knee joint, functioning as a shock absorber, and reducing tissue inflammation.

From its undeniable success within branches of medicine, combined with new and improving chemical modifications, this material flexibility has increased exponentially - allowing it to be manipulated into 3D structures to fit unique disease and tissue models; one such structure being a hydrogel.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The Ray D'Arcy Show, All Ireland winner Mickey Coleman talks to Ray about having a heart attack at the age of 41.

So what is a hydrogel?

A hydrogel is regarded as a 3D polymer that can absorb and retain over 70% of fluid, similar to human tissue. Combining the unique ability of hydrogels to swell with the biocompatible nature of hyaluronic acid results in a 3D polymer structure that can performs illustrious roles in the medical field.

An example of a hyaluronic acid hydrogel medical breakthrough is its application in chronic wound healing. Before the invention of hyaluronic acid dressings, strategies involved clean clinical practices to re-dress the open wound making newly formed tissue vulnerable to further damage and thereby increasing the susceptibility to infection.

Today, hyaluronic acid hydrogels applied to open wounds create a water storage reservoir providing a high humidity environment.

Without the threat of surface drying and with barrier protection from the external environment, the injured tissue can grow and healing while concomitantly reducing scar formation often associated with the reopening of wounds. This is just a single example of this materials rejuvenation capacity.

Hydrogels roles in cardiac diseases

Researchers of more complex diseases, particularly cardiac diseases, are now working to utilise hydrogels as treatment strategies. The intricate and interlinking chemical structure of hydrogels provides high mechanical strength and durability to tissue.

Combining its material rigour with its qualities of natural degradation and inert biproducts overall makes hyaluronic acid hydrogels an attractive supportive material to be used in vulnerable heart disease models.

Myocardial infarctions, better known as heart attacks, can be devastating episodes within the heart that drastically effect a person’s quality of life. A heart attack arises due to the blockage of blood vessels supplying the muscular wall of the heart.

Without vital oxygen, the heart falls into disrepair, cells and tissues start to die and the heart's strength is diminished and fails to synchronise when pumping.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The Ray D'Arcy Show, Aoife Farrell had a heart attack at 18 years of age, two heart transplants and is now in training for the World Transplant games.

Without intervention, heart attacks can drastically impair the heart's ability to work. Ejection fraction measures the efficiency of the blood pumped out of the heart and when this measurable percentage of functionality falls from a healthy 70% to 40%, an individual is diagnosed with heart failure.

Crucial research is being performed to prevent this progression to heart failure with one research strategy involving introducing hydrogels into part of the heart's muscle wall known as the ventricle.

Under usual circumstances, the damaged ventricle wall loses muscle mass and contraction ability. Without muscle integrity of the ventricular wall, the blood entering this affected chamber will start to stress and stretch this muscle, resulting in volume enlargement.

This causes excessive filling and storage of blood within the chamber, preventing it from reaching vital tissues and organs. Current interventions are addressing the vulnerability of the ventricular wall and working to prevent such drastic anatomical restructuring.

My research

As part of AMBER SFI Research for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering within Professor Garry Duffy's Lab in NUI Galway, a hyaluronic acid hydrogel model is being studied to provide structural support and accommodate tissue healing to the infarcted ventricle.

Due to sophisticated chemistries, this proposed hydrogel can be injected as a soft fluid-like material capable of forming a more rigid solid-like structure within the ventricle, matching the mechanical properties of the native ventricle. The novel hydrogel can be delivered minimally invasively helping to limit further stress upon patients and improve recovery.

My current research will aim to improve heart functionality post-infarction with future foresight of its implementation becoming a clinical reality. This extraordinary material has the potential to be an unassuming hero for heart diseases.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ