There are very limited treatment options for repairing nerve injuries, including burns, beyond two centimetres. Researchers at AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded, advanced materials science institute, say their breakthrough may boost recovery for heart-attack survivors.
The electroconductive biomaterial, developed by the multidisciplinary research team over the last three years, could be used to bypass damaged regions of the heart and restore functional activity.
The new material is composed of collagen and graphene. Collagen has a proven regenerative capacity, while graphene, the world’s thinnest material, has unique mechanical and electrical properties.
The researchers combined the two, creating an electroconductive ‘biohybrid’, a material that is mechanically stronger, with increased electrical conductivity.
The material enhances cell growth and, when electrical stimulation is applied, directs cardiac cells to respond and align with the direction of the electrical impulse. The rough surface of the material causes bacterial cell walls to burst, while allowing heart cells to multiply and grow.
Deputy director of AMBER and the project’s lead investigator, Prof Fergal O’Brien, said there had been limited success in using biomaterials to treat damaged heart and nerve tissue.
“There are currently no solutions for very large nerve defects and large areas of heart-wall damage,” he said.
The technology also has potential applications where external devices, such as biosensors and devices, might interface with the body.
Prof O’Brien is head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’s department of anatomy.
The research team will spend the next five to six years validating the technology, before moving to clinical trials. “If we can confirm the potential of the technology in further studies, in both heart and nerve applications, we would look to move towards the clinic in the period beyond that,” he said.
The study is published in Advanced Materials, a leading international materials science journal. It was led by AMBER researchers at RCSI, in partnership with TCD and with Eberhard Karls University, in Germany.