NSF Awards $606,146 to WPI Researcher to Develop Transparent Wound Dressing Inspired by a Kitchen Observation
Worcester, Mass. – February 21, 2023 – Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researcher Jeannine Coburn has been awarded a $606,146 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a transparent wound dressing that was inspired by a natural biopolymer she observed while fermenting kombucha at home.
The prestigious CAREER Award recognizes early-career researchers and will support Coburn’s five-year project to expand fundamental knowledge about a stretchable and optically transparent cellulose produced by Komagataeibacter hansenii, a bacteria found in kombucha, vinegar, and other foods.
Coburn, assistant professor in WPI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, will attach antimicrobial peptides to the cellulose to develop a material that can cover and treat a wound while remaining transparent so that health care workers can visually inspect a wound without exposing and disturbing vulnerable tissue.
“This project began in my kitchen years ago, when I opened a jar of kombucha that I had been making and discovered an optically clear membrane on top of the liquid,” said Coburn. “That observation led to research in my laboratory to better understand this material and its potential to improve human health.”
Coburn will determine the chemical composition and crystal structure of a transparent cellulose produced by K. hansenii, the genes present in the bacteria, and how feeding different carbon sources, or sugars, to the bacteria can alter its expression of genes. Coburn will also develop peptides that can be tethered to the cellulose to fight infections in wounds. One goal is to develop peptides that can disrupt biofilms, which are difficult-to-treat colonies of bacteria embedded within an extracellular matrix.
Chronic wounds are a significant medical issue that annually affect millions of people in the United States and can lead to hospitalization, amputation, and death. Diabetic skin ulcers, pressure sores, surgical incisions, traumatic injuries, and other wounds that fail to progress through the normal healing process are typically covered with dressings made of cotton gauze, gel-like hydrocolloids, or foam materials. Some dressings may be embedded with medicines to fight infection and reduce pain. Yet dressings also obscure wounds. Removing dressings to observe a wound can disturb tissue and expose a wound to contaminants.
Coburn’s project builds on her previous work on materials for biomedical applications. A member of the faculty since 2016, she teaches courses in bioprocess engineering and drug delivery. She was awarded a WPI Women’s Impact Network grant in 2020 for a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Initiative at Belmont Street Community School in Worcester, and she received the WPI Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Academic Advising in 2021.
As part of the project, Coburn will develop education and outreach activities that will integrate her research into materials for both elementary school students in Worcester and undergraduate students at WPI. A faculty fellow in WPI’s First Generation Success Program, she will provide a paid summer research lab experience to one first-generation college student each year of the project.
“It’s important to me to work on projects that can improve human health,” Coburn said. “It’s also important to me, as a first-generation college graduate, to bring STEM to young students and help college students whose parents did not attend college find the academic role models, mentors, and supports they need to succeed.”
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