7 Febbraio 2017

Repairing the spinal cord with graphene

Seven partners, including the Universities of Trento and Cambridge, joined forces in a European project. An interdisciplinary team of scientists is at work to develop a bio-electronic system capable of stimulating the regeneration of conductors of nerve impulses and activating the neural circuit. Four years of research and over 5 million funding from Horizon2020

Imagine that a cherished vase falls to the ground and breaks into pieces: you would do all you can to put it back together as it was. A group of researchers is trying to do something similar, as they aim at repairing the spinal cord. This is the ultimate frontier for nanotechnologies, and the key to succeed is graphene, a super thin and versatile material (a derivative of graphite, the mineral used in pencils) that is made up of a single layer of carbon atoms.
The project, which has just started, was selected by the European Commission in the framework of the Horizon 2020 (H2020) programme in the area of emerging technologies (FET Proactive – Boosting emerging technologies). The project, named Neurofibres (Biofunctionalised Electroconducting Microfibres for the Treatment of Spinal Cord Injury), was presented by a consortium of seven partners, coordinated by the Health Service of Castilla La Mancha (Servicio de Salud de Castilla La Mancha), and the Universities of Trento and Cambridge are among them. The team is composed of neuroscientists, medical specialists, bio-engineers, physicists, electronic and mechanical engineers, with collaboration from a company that makes micro-sensors.
The challenge consists in creating a safe and efficient bio-electronic solution for the treatment of central nervous system lesions. Using this interdisciplinary approach, the project aims at making some progress in restorative neurology through bio-electronic devices capable of stimulating axonal regeneration (conductors of nerve impulses) and neural circuit activation.
Nicola Pugno, the point of reference for the project at the University of Trento, explained: «Our goal is to find innovative solutions to repair the damaged central nervous system and restore a number of crucial functions, like the ability to walk».
What are the characteristics of the micro-device, and how will it work?
«Graphene is the key. We will use it to design and create conductive microfibres made of composite polymers, and to construct a cylindrical scaffold that is bio-compatible, electroactive, mechanically stable. A device with these three fundamental characteristics is a breakthrough, a big step forward. We will place the neurofibres where the spinal cord is damaged and they should promote cell regeneration, electrical connectivity and the patient’s functionality. Investigating, among others, the immunological and neuronal responses to the implanted polymer and bio-electronic system is one of the most complex aspects of the study».
The members of the Neurofibres consortium are: Servicio de Salud de Castilla La Mancha (Spain), University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), AXON' Cable (France), University of Trento (Italy), Kungliga Tekniska Hoegskolan (Sweden), Universite D’Aix Marseille (France) and University of Saarland (Germany). The total funding amounts to over 5 million euro. The University of Trento will receive almost 700,000 euro for the four-year duration of the project.