WORCESTER, Mass. - WPI researcher Jeannine Coburn's passion for the fermented tea drink kombucha led her to make a rather unusual discovery while brewing her own.

"Once I opened it, I had this optically clear material at the air-liquid interface," said Coburn. "Normally, it has an opaque appearance. When you culture it, the cultures open, lots of oxygen, and it's opaque. But it happened to be transparent."

What You Need To Know

  • WPI researcher Jeannine Coburn has been awarded a $606,146 grant from the National Science Foundation
  • The grant will help Coburn's research of developing a transparent wound dressing, inspired by a natural biopolymer she observed while fermenting kombucha at home

  • With the grant, Coburn will also work with first-generation WPI students and Worcester Public Schools students

  • Coburn said she expects the project to take several years before being completed

Coburn is now looking to take the substance from the drink and develop it into a natural, clear wound dressing. It would be a medical-grade product, allowing health care professionals to watch a cut or injury heal without exposing it to the air.

"Chronic wounds becoming infected is a huge challenge, and having wound dressings that could address chronic wounds is huge," Coburn said.

The National Library of Medicine reports more than 8 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic wounds.

Coburn started developing the material about five years ago, and her work is now being funded by a more than $600,000 award from the National Science Foundation. It allows Coburn to work closely on the project with first generation college students at WPI, and collaborate with Worcester Public Schools students.

"I'm hoping and planning to bring related to this bacterial derived cellulose with me for that and introduce them to interesting materials that are also food related," said Coburn.

Coburn said research into this type of bacteria is far from new, however the idea of making it clear is what makes it a novelty. But before anyone is using this to heal their wounds, she said there's still a lot of work to do in the lab.

"I would like to be doing animal work to see what it could be used for," Coburn said. "Ideally in the next few years, we'd start doing some animal work with our materials."