How could soybeans help heal diabetic ulcers?

By Prue Gildea

Soy bean plants at sunrise

A one-year grant from the Ohio Soybean Council is helping two talented University of Melbourne researchers make better use of a soybean by-product, potentially providing higher revenue for farmers. Standard practice involves using the stems and leaves from soybeans to make straw for cattle feed. However, like all plant material, these stems and leaves contains a useful substance.

You can’t see it and you’ve probably never heard of it, but inside all plant material is one very special substance. It’s known for its ability to provide both strength and reinforcement to materials it is added to. It’s called nanocellulose.

University of Melbourne Professor Amanda Ellis from Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Dr Daniel Heath from Biomedical Engineering are spending the next 12 months researching methods of extraction for nanocellulose. The pair has plans to use the substance to make more effective hydrogels to promote the healing of skin cells. If successful, this could help heal diabetic ulcers and provide relief to patients who have burns. Current hydrogels in market are not tough enough for loadbearing applications such as diabetic foot ulcers, and the duo hopes that nanocellulose-reinforced gel will be able to deliver better results.

Speaking about his research, Dr Heath said, “Chronic wounds [such as diabetic ulcers] are a huge unaddressed problem, and require a new generation of materials for their treatment.  I hope to be part of the development of these new wound dressings”.

Dr Heath and Professor Ellis’ project could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of engaging the local and international agricultural sector to derive greater value from bio-waste. This project is exploring just one avenue of nanocellulose usage. Raised in an agricultural region of North Florida, Dr Heath is excited by the prospect of supporting farming communities with the development of new chemical and biomedical solutions.