Smart materials to drive cellular growth

Title of the research project

HYDROLIGHT - Reversible 3D light-structuring of stimuli-responsive hydrogel networks for biophotonic applications

Scientific area 

Material science, Smart materials, Biophotonics

Project coordinator

Francesca Frascella


HYDROLIGHT project was focused on the development of new smart substrates for cellular growth. Functionalized polymeric materials, hydrogel-based with azo-polymers and cyclodexterines, were used, exploiting their capability to change structure following irradiation by a laser source.

Description of the research project 

Many research fields in the life sciences sector would benefit from the design of new materials for cellular substrates able to be morphologically modified with on board cells, in real time and in a reversible way. HYDROLIGHT developed a new technological platform to be delivered to biologists, based on the design of  innovative materials, hydrogel – based. Those polymeric structures are able to be 3D structured thanks to the development of holographic methods with laser structured light. Fundamental element for those smart substrates is the presence of azobenzene, subjected to a light-induced reversible transformation in the geometry and polarization. The project used this property as a “key” to activate or deactivate a link between azobenzene and a specific sugar, cyclodexterine. While irradiated, azobenzene becomes unable to link to the sugar and this allows the possibility to control the spatial distribution of azobenzene. Specific  patterns were obtained controlling the hydrogel irradiation through holographic methods based on spatial light modulators.

The final objective was to study the cell-substrate interaction  and show that it is possible to control the cellular behavior through the morphology of the substrate. Potential uses include the study of organoids (3D stem cell aggregates reproducing in the lab some structural and functional properties of living organs) and the control of the stem cells differentiation in divers cell types.

Impact on society 

HYDROLIGHT project is highly multidisciplinary and combines knowledge and competences in optics, biomaterials synthesis and chemical functionalization, cell biology studies. The knowledge gain in the use of an holographic approach to reversible create specific patterns in thin azopolymeric films paves the way to active sensing techniques. Possible uses, allowing also a commercial exploitation of project results, are tissue engineering and regenerative medicine which will benefit from the possibility to shape cultivated tissues with a desired form.

HYDROLIGHT enriches the Advanced imaging project line of the new Interdepartmental PoliToBIOMed lab of Politecnico di Torino and also the research strategies supported by Regione Piemonte and Compagnia di San Paolo for a Translational Medicine Center.  It will also allow interesting collaboration opportunities with microscope producers such as Nikon to test new holographic approaches for the imaging of biological objects.

Research results

The project has developed and tested three types of innovative hydrogel. The most promising one is the model called PNIPAM-MR anchored to a glassy support: we obtained a cell substrate that can be modified in real time and in a reversible way with on-board cells. The substrate lends itself well to the possibility to be 3D-structures with holographic laser based methods, which makes possible functionalize cells acting on the substrate morphology.

Among the main scientific results, we highlight:

·       3 publications on international scientific magazines

·       2 project presentation at international conferences

·       2 new international collaborations (Belo Horizonte University in Brasil and Karolinska Institute in Sweden)

Moreover, the project has been explained to the general public during the Just the woman I am event in 2019 in Torino..

Short CV of project coordinator 

Francesca Frascella holds a II° level degree in Advanced Chemical Methodologies (Organic Synthesis and Reactivity) obtained at Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy) and a Ph.D. in Material Science and Technology from Politecnico di Torino, where she is currently Assistant professor at the Department of Applied Science and Technology.

She has been for a research period at the University of Bath (United Kingdom) and collaborates with Università di Torino and Inrim (Istituto Nazionale di Metrologia) in Italy and with the University of Siegen in Germany. She is author and co-author of about 40 research papers.

Working group@Polito

Emiliano Descrovi, Associate Professor, DISAT

Serena Ricciardi, Post-doc researcher, DISAT

Betty Ciubini, Post-doc researcher, DISAT


Academic Partner 

University of Siegen, Germany

Non-academic Partner 

Bioclarma, Italy

  • Budget: 150.000
  • Start date: 15/09/2017
  • End date: 14/09/2019