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Red blood cells catalyze polymerization

Iron from hemoglobin initiates radical reaction

by Celia Henry Arnaud
June 29, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 27


Scheme showing a red blood cell, hemoglobin, and the heme group.
Credit: Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.
Iron from the heme group catalyzes polymerization in blood.

Performing polymer synthesis in biological systems could provide a biocompatible approach for engineering cells for therapeutic or other applications. A team led by Greg G. Qiao of the University of Melbourne has used components from blood to catalyze the synthesis of poly(acrylates) and poly(acrylamides) via reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer, or RAFT, radical polymerization (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2018, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201802544). The researchers chose RAFT polymerization because it works in water-based systems with many types of monomers. To kick off the in vitro reaction, they add the enzyme glucose oxidase to produce hydrogen peroxide. The team proposes that the H2O2 degrades the heme group in hemoglobin, releasing iron ions that eventually produce hydroxyl radicals, the initiators for the polymerization, via a Fenton reaction. Purified hemoglobin, isolated red blood cells, and whole blood all catalyzed polymer formation. The researchers plan to use the reaction for encapsulating biomolecules and cells. Craig Hawker, a polymer chemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the method “opens up the very exciting possibility of using hemoglobin in combination with endogenous reactive oxygen species to productively hijack biological processes for in vivo polymer synthesis.”


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