Researchers from Northwestern University developed a new kind of biomaterial that can be 3D printed and can imitate features of the brain tissue. This is a step towards incredible innovation in the field of regenerative medicine offering new possibilities for treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Implications of these findings could have an important effect in surgery as well, potentially allowing doctors to transplant healthy neural cells to patients suffering from neurodegenerative illnesses or injuries of the spinal cord. Another possibility is that the scientists will be able to use cells from patients to develop neurons in the lab with artificial materials that are 3D printed.
Scientists first looked at molecules that can move and travel long distances, as well as organize themselves into larger groups or superstructures of fibers. They used these molecules to create the new biomaterials and controlling the process of self-organization enabled them to make changes in the structure and functions of the molecule systems from nanoscales to larger visible pieces. The key feature of the superstructures is the possibility to grow neurons, which will allow scientists to develop strategies for neuron transplantation as an option for neurodegenerative disease treatment.
Since the discovery of the moving molecules in 2018, this is the first time that scientists have successfully applied their knowledge regarding biomaterial construction to regenerative medicine. The researchers point out that their discoveries might help better understand pathologies and offer a possibility for new therapies to be discovered.
Understanding moving molecules
Scientists create new biomaterials by mixing two liquids that interact chemically. The moving molecules have the ability to travel distances a few thousand times larger than themselves. When they travel, the molecules change in their structure. What makes them different from the materials traditionally used in medicine is the ability to assemble themselves and move within these new structures. These features are what make the systems created in the laboratory of the scientists in this research unique.
Mechanisms of 3D printing allow the shaping of the materials into any needed microscopic configuration. This is possible because the forces used in the process of printing first de-solidifies the superstructures, which then makes it possible to re-shape them by controlling the process of self-assembly.
Implications of the research
The implications for tissue regeneration are vast when we consider the properties of materials discovered by the team of researchers in this study. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor stimulates neurons and helps them create connections among themselves, which promotes their life span. Using this protein can be used for treating neurodegenerative diseases and patients recovering from spinal injuries. The main problem is that these proteins are easily dissolved by the organism and their production is fairly expensive.
Researchers found molecules that imitate the mentioned protein in materials they developed. They also discovered that neurons react when the signal new biomaterial creates is present. This creates the possibility for developing an environment where stem cells could be acquired from patients and allow the neurons separated from them to mature before transplantation.
Possibilities for future research
Scientists believe that the new knowledge and application of it to neural cells creates a path to broader findings. Transferring their discoveries to different areas of regenerative medicine can be possible by using various chemical sequences to the biomaterial. Making changes in the chemistry they use can provide signals that can apply to many different types of tissue.
Transplantation of cartilage or different tissues helps treat injuries and promote function rehabilitation. Other than that, the materials could be used to develop therapies or even implant them into different tissues directly to promote tissue regeneration.