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Microgels with super-powersA myriad of applications in the health and cosmetics sectors

The IPREM is developing a new generation of microgels with amazing properties, opening the door to a myriad of applications in the health and cosmetics sectors.


Laurent Billon, directeur adjoint de l'IPREM
For the average person, microgels don’t mean much. But these colloidal particles composed of a network of polymers swollen in a solvent have astounding properties that are a godsend for academics and industrials. “Microgels are substances that act a bit like tiny sponges that can contain up to 95% water; they can swell or contract under the effect of a stimulus, which can be acidity or a specific temperature,” explains Laurent Billon in simple terms. He is the deputy director of the Institute of analytical sciences and physical chemistry for the environment and materials (IPREM). This unique property can be used to encapsulate or shed molecules. When water evaporates for example, microgels spread over the epidermis, form a resistant and elastic adhesive film that can be used to gradually and slowly diffuse an active ingredient contained in the initial composition into the skin. A bit like a transdermal patch, the key difference being that microgels are much more discreet than a cream or transparent gel.

Applications in cosmetics

So, since 2011, the IPREM has been working in partnership with LVMH (Christian Dior) to synthesise biocompatible microgels for skin applications. Two patents devoted to the encapsulation and shedding of cosmetic agents were filed in 2015 and 2016. A third was filed in 2019 and concerned the development of bio-inspired materials capable of generating physical colours without pigments or dyes that could be incorporated into make-up such as lipsticks and foundations. This partnership with the world’s leading producer of luxury goods was taken a step further when a new partnership agreement was signed with URGO, associating researchers from the UPPA’s Laboratory for the study of rheology and adhesion of wound dressings for medical applications (LERAM). This research also led to two new patents in 2019.

Advantages in the fight against cancer

A further stage was reached when the IPREM was contacted by the Stanford University School of Medicine (California) to develop a new generation of microgels that could be used in the health sector for treating mouth cancer.

“The main challenge here is to enhance the adhesive properties of the microgels in a humid environment in order to increase their dwell time on cellular lesions and thus improve growth-factor shedding,” specifies Laurent Billon. To meet this technological challenge, the teams of the IPREM had the idea of drawing inspiration from mussels which produce dopamine to cling to rocks under water. This research already resulted in a patent with the United States in 2020. More recently, the IPREM also got together with the Toulouse-based start-up Genoskin in order to develop a new generation of microgels, biodegradable this time.

These research projects not only contribute to helping the UPPA earn renown for the excellence of its work on microgels, they are also proof that the university continues to gain momentum in the field of biomimetism.