New research underway to regrow nerves using specially made 3D structures


Pictured: Professor Andrea O'Connor

The ability to regrow nerves is at the heart of a new research project that could help overcome nerve damage without having to source and remove existing nerves from another part of the patient’s body.

Led by partners in the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery (ACMD) at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, this project is investigating the use of 3D structures made from biocompatible and biodegradable materials to cleverly form a mircro-environment that can harness the human body’s natural regeneration capabilities.

The University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology – who are both partners in ACMD – head up the research team that is developing new materials technology to support tissue regeneration for peripheral nerve repair.

According to Professor Andrea O’Connor, Project Lead from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, the novel approach they are taking could ultimately lead to solutions for regenerating other soft tissues, such as skeletal muscle, ligaments and tendons.

“A lot of biological cell growth in labs is traditionally done on a flat surface,” say Prof O’Connor. “Being able to tailor a structure at multiple dimensions that replicates how tissues naturally grow in the body will greatly improve the chances of successful cell and tissue regrowth.”

The challenges faced

Currently, nerve grafting is the main option available for patients with peripheral nerve damage – a process that involves using nerves from another part of the patient’s body to assist with the surgical repair.

“The need to conduct additional surgery in another part of the body comes with increased risk and pain for the patient,” says Prof O’Connor. “This could include a loss of function at the donor site after the nerves are removed, and, if the injury is large, there is a chance the patient may not have enough nerves available that can be safely harvested, or that are suitable for the repair.”

Nerve damage can be caused by an injury or a range of medical conditions. Loss of limb function, or motor, sensory and involuntary nerve functions may be experienced as a result and greatly reduce a patient’s independence and quality of life.

“Treatment of lost tissue function accounts for a large fraction of the national healthcare budget and a lack of satisfactory treatments has meant patients are often forced to endure pain, loss of mobility, experience a reduced quality of life and ongoing healthcare expenses,” says Prof O’Connor.

A way forward

As part of this research study, the project team is investigating the use of novel materials with adjustable physical and chemical properties and creating the right conditions for nerve cells to interact successfully, as well as shaping 3D structures to assist in the growth and tailored materials that will be able to breakdown and be replaced by natural tissue at the right rate.

They are currently working on materials development, along with testing and optimising the fabrication process to get the best results possible.

During the course of this project Prof O’Connor will be collaborating closely with the University of Bayreuth to develop the multidimensional biomaterials required to build the 3D structures. Also collaborating on the project are Monash University and CSIRO (Biomedical Manufacturing Group).

This study has received funding through the Study Melbourne Research Partnerships Program which has been made possible by funding from the Victorian Government and delivered by research management organisation VESKI.

The technology being explored could also potentially be used to help with artificial and robotic limb replacement in the future.