Monday, 6 February 2017

Objective: repairing the spinal cord with graphene

A seven partner project including the University of Trento has been selected by the European Commission in the framework of Horizon 2020

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Imagine that a cherished lamp falls over and breaks into pieces: you would do all you can to put it back together as it was, fix it and turn it on again. A group of researchers is trying to do something similar, but 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).

Neurofibres (Biofunctionalised Electroconducting Microfibres for the Treatment of Spinal Cord Injury), this is the name of the project, was presented by a consortium of seven partners, coordinated by the Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos (Servicio de Salud - Health Service - of Castilla La Mancha, a leading institution for the treatment of paraplegic patients), 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, and collaborates with a company that makes micro-sensors.

The challenge consists in creating a safe and efficient bio-electronic solution (a scaffold) 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 and professor at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering, explained: «Our goal is to repair the damaged central nervous system and restore a number of crucial functions, like the ability to walk». It’s an ambitious goal and the road to get there is long and difficult, but we have faith in this project and we trust the network of people that developed around it to put it in motion».

What are the characteristics of the micro-device, and how will it work?

«We are working on a microfibre material - probably a carbon microfibre - wrapped in a conductive polymer composite sheath, charged with graphene. We will design, manufacture and prepare a number of conductive microfibres, and hence a scaffold (a sort of fibrous sponge) that is bio-compatible, electroactive, mechanically stable. A device with these three fundamental characteristics is a breakthrough, a big step forward. That is the way to go if we want to hope in regeneration and functional recovery. Preliminary tests have shown that the fibres break, fall off or migrate, they are not enough conductive and increase inflammation. We will place the neurofibres where the spinal cord is damaged and - through electro-stimulation and a specific single dimensional topology - they should promote axon growth, restore their functionality and, with this, improve the patient’s functionality. Investigating the immunological and neuronal responses to the implanted tissue 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), Université 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, which has just taken off with the kickoff meeting of 30 and 31 January at the Hospital Nacional de Parapléjicos di Toledo.