Catheters, intravenous lines, and other types of surgical tubing are a medical necessity for managing a wide range of diseases, but a patient's experience with such devices is rarely a comfortable one. However, MIT engineers have designed a gel-like material that can be coated onto standard plastic or rubber devices, providing a softer, more slippery exterior to ease a patient's discomfort. The coating can even be tailored to monitor and treat signs of infection.

The engineers bonded a layer of hydrogel – a squishy, slippery polymer material that consists mostly of water – to common elastomers such as latex, rubber, and silicone. The results are "hydrogel laminates" that are soft, stretchable, slippery, and impermeable to viruses and other small molecules.

The hydrogel coating can be embedded with compounds to sense, for example, inflammatory molecules. Drugs can also be incorporated into and slowly released from the hydrogel coating to treat inflammation in the body.

The team, led by Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, bonded layers of hydrogel onto various elastomer-based medical devices, including catheters and intravenous tubing. They found that the coatings were extremely durable, withstanding bending and twisting, without cracking. The coatings were also extremely slippery, exhibiting much less friction than standard uncoated catheters – a quality that could reduce patients' discomfort.