Dr. Ronald Smaldone is an Associate Professor of Chemistry with a research interest in nanoporous polymers. Along with Co-PIs Dr. Mihaela Stefan and Dr. Jeremiah Gassensmith, the team received a grant to host a workshop of a team of scientists from UT Dallas, and other prestigious universities, to discuss major problems and potential solutions in the area of drug delivery using innovative methods in polymer chemistry, porous materials, and 3D printing. Dr. Smaldone discusses his research on developing new materials for 3D printing as well as how the funded workshop is the first step in creating a federally funded center concerning drug delivery at UT Dallas.
Describe your research for a lay audience.
Our research program involves using organic chemistry and materials chemistry to develop new materials for 3D printing. One of the main things our group is interested in is using fundamental chemical reactions to make new materials for the process. Typically, older polymers that have been adapted for 3D printing, are meant for processes other than those used in 3D printing. In other words, they’re used for traditional manufacturing processes like injection molding and are adapted to 3D printers. That doesn’t always work as well as it should. So, our research involves making new materials to solve problems in that area.
What are some of the challenges you faced?
Some of the challenges that we’ve faced when developing materials, as I’ve said before, is the fact that most of the polymers available to us are not necessarily amenable to 3D printers or the machines themselves. There are different types of 3D printing. You can print with photo chemistry, you can print by thermally interacting with the polymers; so, in other words, you melt them. The chemistry changes depending on the type of 3D. printing that you’re trying to use.
One of the other challenges is that a lot of the chemistry that is developed for organic synthesis or polymer chemistry is not always easily amenable to large scale production. We can’t make materials in large enough amount to use in a 3D printer to manufacture actual items. So, we have to develop some protocols for that.
Some of the other challenges that we are really interested in, is using new chemical methods and evaluating whether they are effective for 3D printing. Some of them are dynamic, covalent chemistry; so, in other words, self-healing or reversible reactions that we can use to make materials that are stronger. We want to be able to make materials that are more biocompatible, so if we want to use 3D printing in applications for tissue engineering or organ regrowth, we need to choose our reactions carefully. While chemical methods may work to make a polymer or printed materials very well, they may not necessarily be amenable to tissues—so it’s not good for bioengineering if you kill the tissue. We want to develop new materials for that as well.
What happens next in the process of discovery?
For us it really is: we choose a problem, we choose a print method, and then we go straight back to fundamental organic chemistry to decide what the best approach would be to solve that problem. In the case of making stronger materials, a lot of 3D printing processes will introduce defects into the printed materials as things happen. So, what we want to do is choose reactions that can specifically heal or repair the damage of those defects during the printing process. Self-healing polymer chemistry is a really useful approach, but all of that is based on basic synthetic, organic, or catalytic reactions. If we want to solve problems in bioengineering, or develop biocompatible materials, many 3D printing processes that use light, use things like UV light which is obviously damaging to cells. There are other additives like radical initiators or chemical additives that are used to make the part printable but are also toxic to cells. What we want to do is develop reactions that don’t require any of those. We’ve had some success in this area, and we’ve had some ideas of what we want to make in the future.
One other direction for the future is that we want to be able to make polymers that are degradable, so that they’re environmentally friendly. 3D printing is a method that’s introducing new ways to manufacture plastic materials. Plastic materials do have an environmental impact, so the overall lifetime of the polymer is important. When we develop our new polymers from scratch, we want to make sure that their whole life is taken into account; that they can be printed into something that’s useful, that they do what they’re supposed to in their lifetime, and then, at the end, they’re either degradable or disposable in some way that won’t have a lasting impact.
What advice would you give students interested in your field of research?
Well, it’s a pretty diverse area as far as ability. In other words, you want to be able to understand polymer chemistry, organic synthesis, and mechanical engineering. You don’t want to focus too much on one specific area, but you want to be open minded to learn a lot of stuff.
As for any area of research, for students it’s always important to get into research as early as possible. You may not think you know enough to do it, but that’s not important—you learn as you go. The longer you’re involved with research the more you learn; you never really stop learning about research. So, the earlier you start, the better prepared you’ll be for a future career in research.
Seed Research Project
We have a funded workshop from UT Dallas, the Office of Research to basically bring in potential collaborators to develop our strengths at UT Dallas. We have several professors—my particular collaborations on this project are Professor Mihaela Stefan from the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and also Professor Jeremiah Gassensmith, also from the department of Chemistry. What we’re trying to do is develop new 3D printable materials for drug delivery. This is a developing area using 3D printing of manufacturing techniques in novel or advanced drug delivery methods. One thing we want to do is not just combine our expertise here at UT Dallas, but bring in experts around the country and industry to UT Dallas to meetup, share ideas and develop collaborations as well as potential research proposals to support students here at UTD.