New Publication: Screening of MMP-13 Inhibitors Using a GelMA-Alginate Interpenetrating Network Hydrogel-Based Model Mimicking Cytokine-Induced Key Features of Osteoarthritis In Vitro

We are delighted to announce the publication of our latest research in Polymers, marking a significant milestone for our team. This paper represents the first publication for Alessandra Palladino and a key contribution from Qichan Hu towards her PhD thesis:

Title: Screening of MMP-13 Inhibitors Using a GelMA-Alginate Interpenetrating Network Hydrogel-Based Model Mimicking Cytokine-Induced Key Features of Osteoarthritis In Vitro

Authors: Hu, Q.; Williams, S.L.; Palladino, A.; Ecker, M.

Journal: Polymers 2024, 16, 1572



Osteoarthritis (OA) is a chronic joint disease characterized by irreversible cartilage degradation. Current clinical treatments lack effective pharmaceutical interventions targeting the root causes of OA. This study explores the use of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) inhibitors to slow OA progression by addressing cartilage degradation mechanisms.

Our research utilized a GelMA-alginate hydrogel-based 3D in vitro model, which closely mimics the native extracellular matrix (ECM) and the cytokine-induced conditions of OA. This model was used to test MMP-13 inhibitors, as MMP-13 is a major contributor to articular cartilage degradation. The results showed significant inhibition of type II collagen breakdown, demonstrated by measuring C2C concentration using ELISA after treatment with MMP-13 inhibitors. Despite inconsistencies in human cartilage explant samples, our findings highlight the potential of this hydrogel-based model as an alternative to human cartilage explants for in vitro drug screening.

Confirmation of chondrogenesis in GelMA-alginate hydrogel. (a) qRT-PCR analysis of
gene expression of chondrogenic markers. Gene expression is normalized to GAPDH and expressed
relative to the control group (Day 0). Data are presented as mean ± SD with statistical significance
indicated as * p < 0.05 and ** p < 0.01.


This research offers a promising platform for preclinical testing of OA treatments, advancing our understanding and development of effective pharmaceutical interventions.

For more information, please read the full paper here.

We are excited to contribute to the field of osteoarthritis research and look forward to future advancements.


Osteoarthritis, MMP-13 Inhibitors, GelMA-Alginate Hydrogel, 3D In Vitro Model, Cytokine-Induced OA Model, Type II Collagen Breakdown, Preclinical Testing.

Spotlight on Alessandra: Celebrating Her Achievements

We are proud to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of Alessandra Palladino, a standout member of our Smart Polymers Lab. Alessandra has recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering (BMEN) from the University of North Texas, achieving summa cum laude honors. Her dedication and excellence have also earned her the title of Outstanding Senior from our department.

In addition to her academic achievements, Alessandra and her team, DEOS Solutions, won the prestigious prize for the best senior design project. This accolade is a testament to her innovative thinking and commitment to practical applications in biomedical engineering.

Alessandra’s journey with us does not end here. We are thrilled to announce that she will continue her academic and research pursuits by enrolling in our Master of Science program. We look forward to her continued contributions and are excited to see the innovations she will bring to the field.

Please join us in congratulating Alessandra on her outstanding accomplishments and wishing her continued success in her future endeavors.

Smart Polymers Lab at the North Texas Biomedical Engineering & Science Symposium

We are thrilled to share that our Smart Polymers Lab recently participated in the North Texas Biomedical Engineering & Science Symposium hosted by the Alpha Eta Mu Beta (AEMB) student organization. This event brought together students from the University of North Texas (UNT) and other universities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to discuss the latest advancements in biomedical engineering and science.

Our lab presented two posters showcasing our cutting-edge research on shape memory polymers and hydrogels. These posters highlighted our latest findings and innovations, contributing to the growing body of knowledge in the field of smart polymers for biomedical applications.

In addition to our poster presentations, I had the distinct honor of delivering the keynote speech at the symposium. This was a wonderful opportunity to share our lab’s vision, discuss our recent achievements, and outline the future directions of our research. Engaging with fellow students and exchanging ideas in such a dynamic environment was both inspiring and invaluable.

We are also proud to highlight that two students from our lab, Alessandra and Chloe, hold leadership positions within the AEMB student organization. Their dedication and leadership played a crucial role in the successful organization of this event.

We are grateful to AEMB for organizing this impactful event and for providing a platform to showcase our work. We look forward to continued collaboration and innovation in the field of biomedical engineering.

Smart Polymers Lab Shines at the 2024 UNT College of Engineering Research Showcase

The 2024 UNT College of Engineering Research Showcase provided an excellent platform for our Smart Polymers Lab to exhibit our cutting-edge research. We proudly presented three posters highlighting the innovative work being conducted in our lab.

Chloe and Alessandra showcased their research on measuring the antimicrobial properties of bioactive glasses. Their study focused on the potential applications of these materials in preventing infections and enhancing the effectiveness of medical devices. The detailed analysis and promising results drew significant attention from attendees, emphasizing the critical impact of their work in the field of biomaterials.

Raj and Jack presented their research on internal shape memory sleeves, exploring how heat and moisture can be harnessed for healing. Their poster detailed the mechanisms by which these sleeves can adapt and respond to environmental changes, offering potential advancements in medical treatments and wearable technology. The practical implications of their research sparked engaging discussions and highlighted the innovative approach our lab is taking to solve real-world problems.

Finally, Praises, Marc Anthony, and Veda presented their poster on customizable thiol-clickable hydrogels for 3D cell cultures using thiol-click chemistry. Their work on developing versatile and adaptable hydrogels for cell culture applications demonstrates the forefront of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The customizable nature of these hydrogels allows for a wide range of applications, making their research a significant contribution to the field.

The presence of our lab at the showcase not only demonstrated the breadth and depth of our research and underscored our commitment to advancing biomedical engineering. Each of these projects exemplifies the innovative spirit and collaborative efforts that define our lab. We are proud of the hard work and dedication of all our researchers and look forward to continuing our contributions to the field.

Overall, the 2024 UNT College of Engineering Research Showcase was a tremendous success for our Smart Polymers Lab. We extend our gratitude to everyone who visited our posters and engaged with our researchers. Your support and interest are invaluable as we continue to push the boundaries of biomedical engineering.

New Publication: Precision Engineering of Chondrocyte Microenvironments: Investigating the Optimal Reaction Conditions for Type B Gelatin Methacrylate Hydrogel Matrix for TC28a2 CellsNew Publication:

The newest publication from our lab is now available online!

This research was led by Qichan and is co-authored by Marc Anthony.


Gelatin methacrylate (GelMA) is a photocrosslinkable biomaterial that has gained widespread use in tissue engineering due to its favorable biological attributes and customizable physical and mechanical traits. While GelMA is compatible with various cell types, distinct cellular responses are observed within GelMA hydrogels. As such, tailoring hydrogels for specific applications has become imperative. Thus, our objective was to develop GelMA hydrogels tailored to enhance cell viability specifically for TC28a2 chondrocytes in a three-dimensional (3D) cell culture setting. We investigated GelMA synthesis using PBS and 0.25M CB buffer, analyzed the mechanical and physical traits of GelMA hydrogels, and evaluated how varying GelMA crosslinking conditions (GelMA concentration, photoinitiator concentration, and UV exposure time) affected the viability of TC28a2 chondrocytes. The results revealed that GelMA synthesis using 0.25M CB buffer led to a greater degree of methacrylation compared to PBS buffer, and the LAP photoinitiator demonstrated superior efficacy for GelMA gelation compared to Irgacure 2959. Additionally, the stiffness, porosity, and swelling degree of GelMA hydrogels were predominantly affected by GelMA concentration, while cell viability was impacted by all crosslinking conditions, decreasing notably with increasing GelMA concentration, photoinitiator concentration, and UV exposure time. This study facilitated the optimization of crosslinking conditions to enhance cell viability within GelMA hydrogels, a critical aspect for diverse biomedical applications.

Do you want to read more? The full publication can be found here:

Q. Hu, M. A. Torres, H. Pan, S. L. Williams and M. Ecker, M. Precision Engineering of Chondrocyte Microenvironments: Investigating the Optimal Reaction Conditions for Type B Gelatin Methacrylate Hydrogel Matrix for TC28a2 Cells. J. Funct. Biomater., 2024, 15.

UNT BMES Medical Device Make-a-Thon 2024

The UNT BMES Medical Device Make-a-Thon 2024 has concluded with outstanding success, marking another significant milestone for the University of North Texas’ Department of Biomedical Engineering. Led by Marc Anthony Torres, president of the UNT BMES student chapter, the event brought together some of the brightest minds to tackle pressing medical challenges.

This year’s Make-a-Thon focused on developing innovative solutions to treat Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a condition affecting millions worldwide. Participants were tasked with creating practical and effective medical devices to alleviate the symptoms and improve the quality of life for GERD patients.

Among the many exceptional projects, two teams stood out with their remarkable achievements. Congratulations to Sarah and her team for securing 1st place with their groundbreaking solution. Their innovative approach and meticulous execution impressed the judges and set a high standard for future competitions.

Equally impressive was the performance of Praises and her team, who earned a commendable 3rd place. Their project demonstrated creativity, technical skill, and a deep understanding of the challenge at hand.

Marc Anthony Torres deserves special recognition for his exemplary leadership and organizational skills. His dedication to fostering an environment of collaboration and innovation was evident throughout the event. Under his guidance, the UNT BMES Medical Device Make-a-Thon has once again proven to be a fertile ground for future biomedical engineers to grow and excel.

The success of this event underscores the vibrant and dynamic nature of the UNT BMES community. It is a proud moment for all involved, showcasing the ingenuity and determination that will undoubtedly drive future advancements in biomedical engineering.

Congratulations to all participants, and we look forward to witnessing more groundbreaking achievements in the years to come.

Celebrating a Milestone: Chandani, Our First PhD Graduate!

We are thrilled to share a momentous achievement in the history of our lab – the graduation of Chandani Chitrakar, our first-ever PhD student! Chandani has been an integral part of our research community, and her dedication, passion, and hard work have left an indelible mark on our lab.

The Journey:

Chandani embarked on her doctoral journey with us in 2019, bringing not only her academic prowess but also a contagious enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of scientific exploration. Throughout the years, she has been a beacon of inspiration for her peers and an invaluable asset to our research endeavors.

Research Contributions:

Chandani’s research has been nothing short of groundbreaking. Her innovative work on the DEVELOPMENT AND CHARACTERIZATION OF COMPLIANT BIOELECTRONIC DEVICES FOR GASTROINTESTINAL STIMULATION has not only expanded our understanding of smart polymers but has also garnered recognition within the scientific community. Her contributions have been instrumental in shaping the direction of our lab’s research and will undoubtedly influence the field for years to come.

Collaboration and Leadership:

Beyond her individual achievements, Chandani has been a collaborative force within our lab. She has fostered a culture of teamwork, inspiring fellow students and researchers to work together toward common goals. Her leadership qualities have been evident in several publications, where she spearheaded the manuscript preparation.

Chandani’s Impact:

As Chandani walks across the stage to receive her well-deserved doctoral hood, we reflect on the lasting impact she leaves on our lab. Her resilience, intellectual curiosity, and commitment to excellence have set a high standard for future graduate students to aspire to.

Looking Ahead:

Chandani’s success is a testament to the vibrant research environment we strive to cultivate in our lab. As we celebrate this milestone, we eagerly anticipate the continued success of our graduate students, each contributing to the rich tapestry of discoveries that define our research community.

Join us in extending heartfelt congratulations to Chandani for her remarkable achievement! As she takes the next steps in her career, we are confident that her journey will continue to inspire and shape the future of scientific inquiry.

New Publication: Multifaceted Shape Memory Polymer Technology for Biomedical Application: Combining Self-Softening and Stretchability Properties

The newest publication from our lab is now online available!

This research was led by Chandani and is co-authored by Marc Anthony and Qichan.


Thiol-ene polymers are a promising class of biomaterials with a wide range of potential applications, including organs-on-a-chip, microfluidics, drug delivery, and wound healing. These polymers offer flexibility, softening, and shape memory properties. However, they often lack the inherent stretchability required for wearable or implantable devices. This study investigated the incorporation of di-acrylate chain extenders to improve the stretchability and conformability of those flexible thiol-ene polymers. Thiol-ene/acrylate polymers were synthesized using 1,3,5-triallyl-1,3,5-triazine-2,4,6(1H,3H,5H)-trione (TATATO), Trimethylolpropanetris (3-mercaptopropionate) (TMTMP), and Polyethylene Glycol Diacrylate (PEGDA) with different molecular weights (Mn 250 and Mn 575). Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy confirmed the complete reaction among the monomers. Uniaxial tensile testing demonstrated the softening and stretching capability of the polymers. The Young’s Modulus dropped from 1.12 GPa to 260 MPa upon adding 5 wt% PEGDA 575, indicating that the polymer softened. The Young’s Modulus was further reduced to 15 MPa under physiologic conditions. The fracture strain, a measure of stretchability, increased from 55% to 92% with the addition of 5 wt% PEGDA 575. A thermomechanical analysis further confirmed that PEGDA could be used to tune the polymer’s glass transition temperature (Tg). Moreover, our polymer exhibited shape memory properties. Our results suggested that thiol-ene/acrylate polymers are a promising new class of materials for biomedical applications requiring flexibility, stretchability, and shape memory properties.

Do you want to read more? The full publication can be found here:

C. Chitrakar, M.A. Torres, P.E. Rocha-Flores, Q. Hu, M. Ecker, Multifaceted Shape Memory Polymer Technology for Biomedical Application: Combining Self-Softening and Stretchability Properties. Polymers202315, 4226.

We are hiring

Research Assistant/Ph.D. Position in Polymeric Biomaterials

The Smart Polymers for Biomedical Applications Lab (aka the Ecker Lab) in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Texas has an open Ph.D. position for Fall 2023.

Project Background

The Ecker Lab is conducting research at the intersection of polymer science and biomedical engineering. Our Team is quite diverse and has expertise in Chemistry, Materials Science, Engineering, and Biology. We combine all those fields to develop next-generation biomedical devices based on smart polymeric materials. These materials consist of shape memory polymers that are responsive to bodily conditions and are mechanically adaptive to comply with a tissue. Some of our custom polymers are also biodegradable. Additionally, we make sure that our novel materials are biocompatible.

Job Description

We are looking for an enthusiastic and motivated individual to investigate the structure-property relationship of shape memory polymers for biomedical applications. The goal of this NSF-funded project is to elucidate the underlying mechanism of the plasticization-induced shape memory effect of thiol-ene-based polymers. The model application for this material will be a heat shrink tubing that can shrink at bodily conditions (37° C and simulated body fluids) and can be used to seal colonic anastomosis.

This project will be based in Melanie Eckers Smart Polymers for Biomedical Applications Lab at UNT.

Your Profile

  • You hold a Master’s degree in materials science, polymer science, chemistry, or a related field.
  • Experience in polymer material processing (required)
  • Experience with shape memory polymers (beneficial)
  • Experience with mechanical and thermomechanical characterization (beneficial)
  • Proficiency in oral and written English (required)
  • Enthusiastic, creative, and self-motivated (required)

We Offer

We offer a research assistant position for up to five years (contingent on yearly positive evaluations). You will be working in a dynamic and interdisciplinary work environment in the Ecker lab, which is part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Our lab is highly diverse, and we value members from all personal backgrounds.

Our department is committed to educating and creating well-rounded, knowledgeable biomedical engineers passionate about improving the quality of life for people in Texas, the United States, and the world. Our Ph.D. program offers two tracks: a traditional research track that will help you progress toward your academic career goal and a one-of-a-kind healthcare start-up management track in collaboration with the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.

What is the University like?

The University of North Texas is a student-centered public research university with over 40,000 students. A Carnegie-ranked Tier One public research university, UNT is one of the nation’s most diverse universities. UNT has been designated as both a Minority Serving Institution and Hispanic Serving Institution and stands committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion in its pursuit of academic excellence.

With 7.5 million people and two international airports, DFW is the fourth-largest metro area in the United States. DFW is racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally rich and maintains a long-standing commitment to the arts exemplified by local attractions such as the Dallas Arts District and the Fort Worth Cultural District. UNT’s proximity to these major metropolitan centers ensures that our new colleague will be able to access a wide range of activities and cultural experiences.

UNT is located in Denton, Texas, a growing city with a small-town feel and a thriving arts and music scene centered on its downtown Square and is connected by highways and light rail to the major transportation hubs and big-city attractions of Dallas and Fort Worth, about 40 miles away. Want to know more about why you should consider coming to Denton? Check out Discover Denton.

Curious? So are we.

We look forward to receiving your email application, including:

  • a letter of motivation,
  • a brief statement of research interests,
  • copies of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree transcripts,
  • a CV,
  • the names and contact information of at least two academic referees.

To apply for this position, please contact Dr. Melanie Ecker at

Dr. Ecker received NSF CAREER Award

We are excited to share that Dr. Ecker has received the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award to conduct research on Shape Memory Polymers as Biomaterial.

CAREER: The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

NSF Website

This CAREER project aims to elucidate the underlying mechanism of the plasticization-induced shape memory effect of thiol-ene based polymers. The model application for this material will be a heat shrink tubing that can shrink at bodily conditions (37° C and simulated body fluids) and can be used to seal colonic anastomosis. The specific three aims are to (1) Systematically investigate the effect of crosslink-density and chain extender length on the plasticization-induced shape memory effect of thiol-ene based polymers. Mechanical and thermomechanical measurements inside simulated body fluids will be used to assess shape memory properties and structure-property relationships. (2) Understand the relationship between material thickness, degree of shape-programming, and radial recovery forces of tube-shaped SMPs to determine optimal design parameters for sufficient shape recovery using the heat shrink tube model. (3) Demonstrate the functionality of a biomedical heat shrink tube that utilizes the plasticization-induced shape recovery through an ex vivo colon anastomosis model and quantify mechanical and sealing properties. The proposed research will advance science by filling the gap in the structure-property relationship of thiol-ene based SMPs that utilize plasticization for their shape recovery, which is essential for designing future devices. In addition, this innovative biomaterial will allow the broader research community to develop novel biomedical devices tailored to specific tissues and applications. Educational and outreach activities will be implemented to raise excitement, awareness, and interest in the emerging field of smart polymeric biomaterials. These will include a gender- and ethnicity-matched mentor-mentee program, training students from underrepresented groups in the PI’s laboratory, incorporating research discoveries into coursework, and communicating research to the general public at local science slam events.

Here is a link to the full abstract