Mucus is not only a sign of disease, but also an important part of our body’s defense against disease. Every day, our bodies produce over a liter of slippery substance, covering a surface area of over 400 square meters, in order to trap and disarm bacteria.
The mucus is made up of mucins or mucoproteins. This is a family of high molecular weight glycoproteins containing acidic polysaccharides. They have a gel-like consistency and are produced by epithelial cells of almost all animals, including humans. For a long time, scientists have been trying to create synthetic versions of mucins in the hope of replicating their beneficial properties. In a new study, researchers at MIT have created synthetic polymer-based mucins. They most closely mimic the structure and function of naturally occurring mucoproteins. Scientists have also shown that these synthetic mucins can effectively neutralize the bacterial toxin that causes cholera.
To create the polymers, the researchers used a tungsten-based Schrock catalyst to form cis versions of polymers, mucin mimetics. They compared these polymers to those made with another ruthenium-based catalyst that creates trans versions. Scientists found that the cis versions were more like natural mucins, that is, they formed very elongated, water-soluble polymers. In contrast, trans polymers formed globules that stick together rather than stretch.
The researchers then tested the ability of synthetic mucins to mimic the functions of natural mucoproteins. They found that when exposed to the toxin produced by Vibrio cholerae, the elongated cis polymers trap the toxin much better than the trans polymers. In fact, synthetic cis-mucin mimics were even more effective than natural mucins.