Engineering hydrogels to treat spinal cord injury (Day 308)

Engineering hydrogels to treat spinal cord injury (Day 308)

31st March 2015

Spinal cord injuries are extremely serious and the road to recovery is often a long one.

Two million people worldwide are affected by spinal cord problems that result in the loss of motor and sensory function below the point of injury, which can be devastating.

I've blogged previously about a team from Stanford University, which is working reduce the trauma of injections and improve the 'healing help for spinal injuries'. It's an area where chemical engineers are making a difference. Here's another great example.

Photo Credit | Dr. -Ing Laura De Laporte

The European Union has awarded a 1.5 million Euro grant to a chemical engineer, Dr.-Ing Laura De Laporte, from DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials to research an injectable hydrogel that will help spinal cord repair.

Laura’s research objective is to develop a minimally invasive therapy for spinal cord injury. She will do this by engineering a biomaterial in a project she calls ANISOGEL.

Her goal is to develop an injectable material with the potential to provide biochemical and physical guidance for regenerating nerves across an injury site.

Regenerative therapies aim to restore nerve bundles and their function. Human neural stem cells or oligodendrocytes, which form the myelin sheath around nerve cells, have been successfully transplanted into the damaged area.  This work shows real promise.

Scientists are also investigating nerve bridges constructed from bio materials. The bridges will support both transplanted and native cells at the injury site. If the work succeeds, the bio engineered bridges will release growth factors and provide functional domains that guide neuron growth.

Further work is needed to develop effective implants that can stimulate new nerve growth across the injury site in order to rebuild the functional connections that make up a healthy spinal cord.

The material is based on a soft, water-rich polymeric network (hydrogel) that gels in situ and can be designed to mimic the conditions found in the cell's natural environment. The physical, chemical, and biological properties of the gel can be tailored bottom-up to resemble the body’s own extra-cellular matrix, which provides mechanical and biological support to cells.

Laura explains: “A hydrogel-based approach is not new. The innovative aspect about ANISOGEL is that we want to synthesize a material that can be hierarchically structured and form directionally dependent architecture in situ,”

She continues: “This will improve the cells’ spatial orientation, which is crucial for nerve repair. The hydrogel will be further modified with biological signaling molecules to create an environment that stimulates cellular processes necessary for spinal cord regeneration and to regain functionality.”

Laura’s work has huge potential to improve the treatment of spinal cord injuries through more efficient and less invasive procedures.  This is excellent news and I commend her work as a superb example of  why chemical engineering matters in the bio domain.

I look forward to hearing more about ANISOGEL and indeed any other projects and products that can have an impact on well being. So why not get in touch and share your story with me.