Molecular Biotechnology Lab
Cha, Hyung Joon (Chemical Engineering)
Imagine a way in which we could simply use adhesives to suture open flesh following a surgical procedure. While adhesives could potentially relieve pain and eliminate the additional process of removing stitches, such adhesives would be extremely difficult to produce. Most importantly, they would need to be harmless to the body while providing enough bonding strength to be effective. Just by chance, some scientists stumbled upon the right candidate in nature, and it turned out to be shockingly ordinary: the common mussel, found in the sea, could satisfy all the strict conditions.
The Molecular Biotechnology Laboratory leaded by professor Cha, Hyung Joon at the Department of Chemical Engineering, POSTECH, is working to redesign biomolecules derived from living organisms at the molecular and cellular levels to produce useful biomaterials. Such materials are more biologically-friendly than their chemically-synthesized counterparts and are thus widely used in medical and healthcare applications.
One flagship achievement made by the Lab is the development of medical adhesives based on the adhesive proteins of the mussel. Mussels are easily able to stick on moist rock surfaces and their bonding strength is so powerful that if you forcibly detach them from the rock, a portion of the rock surface will come with them. Their secret to sticking on surfaces lies in their ability to secrete strong underwater adhesive proteins. These proteins can be used to fabricate innovative medical adhesives that have strong adhesiveness, while generating harmless and biodegradability in the human body.
While researchers knew about the potential of the mussel adhesive proteins to fabricate adhesive materials as early as the 1980’s, they faced a stumbling block in securing a large quantity of these adhesive proteins to make the endeavor feasible. Just to obtain 1g of directly extracted adhesive proteins, more than 10,000 mussels were needed. In 2007, the Lab became the world’s first to develop original technology to mass-produce adhesive proteins through microorganism cultivation and has since laid the foundation to commercialize this technology through its continued research for fabrications of these proteins. The bioadhesives produced as such were diversified to meet the pressing needs of the medical and healthcare sectors, from medical underwater adhesives, waterproof bone adhesives, medical instant adhesives, 3D printing bioinks, and adhesive microneedle patches to local nano-cancer therapeutic platform, local immune antibody delivery carriers, and local stem cell delivery carriers. This earned the Lab the ‘Korean Engineering Award’ Award from the Korean President in 2017.
The Molecular Biotechnology Lab is the forerunner in commercializing research outcomes. Its strategy to make patent applications prior to publishing research papers enabled the Lab to post 28 and 63 patents granted overseas and in Korea respectively as of December 2020 with more than 100 patents applied domestically and internationally. This earned the Lab the ‘Inventor of the Year’ Award by the Korean Intellectual Property Office in 2017. Professor Cha notes “Personally, it would be the pinnacle of delight to witness one or more of our research outcomes find its way into a practical real-life application”. In developing innovative biomaterials that prove safe to the human body and utilizing them for medical and healthcare applications (including drug and cell delivery), the Lab is making significant contributions to the betterment of our daily lives.
Head of Lab
School of Environmental Science and Engineering Building 323