Creating Aqualub: a nature-inspired biogel

The human body produces a variety of natural lubricants, from the saliva that helps us to swallow to the synovial fluid that helps our joints to move smoothly. But if our bodies can no longer produce these, perhaps because of illness or old age, it can cause a number of issues.

These include osteoarthritis, where a lack of fluid in the joints makes them painful and stiff – or dry eye syndrome, where tear ducts can’t produce enough fluid.

One of the most common problems caused by lack of natural lubricant is dry mouth, resulting from problems with saliva glands. This can make eating a difficult process and raise the risk of choking, as well as leading to tooth decay and resulting in expensive dental bills.

This is what Professor Anwesha Sarkar from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds set out to resolve when she first started to develop Aqualub. This new product is a nature-inspired biocompatible aqueous lubricant, which she hopes can be a platform technology for solving several different medical issues, such as those mentioned above.

For example, around one in ten people in the UK suffer from dry mouth and it typically affects the elderly, cancer patients, and people with autoimmune diseases. Due to the difficulty it causes in swallowing, it can very often lead to malnutrition, as affected people often eat less. While over-the-counter sprays are available to remedy this problem, they don’t often work effectively.

Professor Sarkar’s new platform technology, Aqualub, is a microgel dispersion which is made of a mix of biopolymers and water. One of the common problems with over-the-counter dry mouth sprays is that they don’t tend to last long, as they get easily washed away by water. With Aqualub, however, the microgel dispersion sticks to the tongue and slowly releases the water over time. Not only does this help to tackle the problem of dry mouth, but it also means that you don’t have to keep reapplying this oral therapy, as it is not as easy to wash off.

During her time developing Aqualub, Professor Sarkar learnt several valuable lessons that other entrepreneurs can benefit from:

Get your commercialisation team involved early in the innovation process. If you think your idea is inventive and has a true business potential, it’s very important to involve your institution’s Research and Innovation Services, or commercialisation team, in the early stages. That can be even before you start generating any data – but it means the IP strategy can be effectively evaluated and even some proof of market study can be initiated to examine the translational potential.

Innovation is a rather bumpy road. You might think you have got a solid business case with reasonable opportunity size, business model and also also a clear plan for execution, so that there can be a spin out tomorrow – it’s not always that straightforward! Sometimes it requires lot more realms of data – technical and commercial elements are just pieces of the puzzle. Hence, it’s important to stay patient: keep talking to the commercialisation team, seek guidance, apply for various impact and catalyst funds and keep building the portfolio dataset efficiently.