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AMBER researchers develop new biomaterial with potential to restore lost neural function

31 August 2022

Researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and AMBER, the SFI-funded materials research centre based in Trinity College Dublin, have developed a new graphene-based biomaterial with potential for spinal cord tissue regeneration and enhancing recovery in patients with neural injuries.

Spinal cord injuries have serious implications for patients, as available therapies are unable to restore lost neural function. However, in a recent breakthrough, RCSI, TCD and AMBER researchers have developed a biomaterial that promotes neuronal growth using nanomaterials and electrical stimulation. The research has been published in Applied Materials Today — a leading global academic journal on materials sciences.

Researchers found that combining an electroconductive material with a regenerative natural matrix in this new biomaterial allows for the transmission of electrical signals across damaged tissue, encouraging the growth of neurons, and thereby restoring lost neural function. This was achieved through the combination of the properties of graphene – a highly conductive nanomaterial, and collagen – a protein with known regenerative potential, abundant in the human body, that is capable of supporting cells. The result of this is a ‘biohybrid’ material that is softer and more biocompatible than current stimulation materials and has increased electrical conductivity compared to current neuronal growth materials, which is a key element as electrical stimulation promotes growth in neuronal cells.

This research presents a large step forward, as current treatments for such injuries involve the introduction of neuronal devices composed of foreign materials, typically metals, to the body that result in scarring which inhibits proper regeneration of spinal cord tissue and outgrowth of neurons. However, collagen is a soft material, and significantly reduces the likelihood of scar tissue formation at these sites, while the graphene flakes interspersed through this scaffold allow for the conduction of electrical signals. It is also inexpensive to produce, lending itself towards being developed as an ‘off the shelf’ treatment/therapy for repairing neural injuries and other tissue defects.

Another benefit of using graphene as a conductive material is that it can be combined with other polymers to form scaffolds, which are support structures that can be implanted into patients to promote wound healing and tissue regeneration. This is not possible with current metallic implants, which are often limited by the biocompatibility of the metal. Jack Maughan, a PhD student in AMBER working between TCD and RCSI said “the novelty of our work arises from it being conductive, biocompatible, processable into a range of different structures, and much softer than traditional electrode materials all at once — this is a tough challenge to solve, and our work represents a large step in the right direction”.

Prof Fergal O’Brien, Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG) and Professor of Bioengineering & Regenerative Medicine in RCSI commented “The unique interdisciplinary environment provided by AMBER whereby 2D materials from the Coleman group in TCD can be combined with materials from RCSI with proven regenerative potential provides an opportunity for disruptive innovation like this to occur”.

This breakthrough has several potential applications outside of neural damage, including cardiac and bone tissue engineering. The new study was conducted in TERG and the Chemical Physics of Low-Dimensional Nanostructures group led by Prof. Jonathan N. Coleman in TCD.

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