Year of selection 2016
Institution Centre for Cooperative Research in Biomaterials
Spinal cord injuries often result in irreversible lesions to the nervous systems. Victims may develop terrible symptoms, such as partial or total paralysis. Hundreds of thousands of new cases occur each year, devastating the lives of patients and their families. So far, no efficient cure for an effective recovery of the nerve functionality has been found, but our knowledge of spinal cord injuries (SCI) is improving and new approaches are gradually emerging. Among the most promising is the construction of a prosthetic bridge between the fractured ends of the spinal cord.
Using carbon nanotubes (CNTs) as building material, Professor Maurizio Prato and his team have obtained exceptionally encouraging results in this domain. « We’ve demonstrated that these minuscule wires, which are 50,000 times smaller than a human hair, are able to electrically reconnect entire pieces of spinal cord in a very efficient way », reports Prof. Prato, a pioneer and a leading figure in the field of nanotechnology applied to neurosciences. The AXA-biomaGUNE Nanobiotechnology Chair, which Prof. Prato will hold, intends to build on these findings in order to develop a new generation of biocompatible materials, able to serve as scaffolds for the regeneration of nerve communication in spinal cord injuries. The ultimate goal is to find a way to repair severe and irreversible lesions of the nervous system and restore lost functionalities.
Building a bridge to restore communication in the spinal cord
Our brain communicates with the rest of our body through the spinal cord. When a lesion occurs, the nerve communication can be partially or entirely broken. The connection between the neuronal cells in the spinal cord is interrupted. « Basically, this means that our brain can no longer send messages to our body. » explains Prof. Prato. « What we are trying to do is to insert 3D constructs of CNTs into the lesioned part and see whether we can obtain reconnection ».
Carbon nanotubes have unique electrical, mechanical and chemical properties that make them interesting materials to use with electroactive cells, such as neurons. « Neuronal cells communicate among themselves with electricity. we were the first to shown that building a bridge made of conductor material between two separated pieces of spinal cord could reestablish the connection between them », describes Prof. Prato. Precisely how this works – whether the CNT acts as electrical wires through which neurons can communicate, or if it acts like an active structure which allows the nerve to grow around it –, has not yet been established.
To take this promising approach to the next level, the AXA-biomaGUNE Nanobiotechnology Chair will pursue complementary objectives. First, the researchers will test more exhaustively how CNTs interact with the spinal cord. Then, they will work on increasing the biocompatibility of CNTs, in particular by developing new synthetic materials that will help insert the nanotubes safely into a lesion site. Lastly, the team will test the most promising of these bio-hybrid 3D neural constructs in vivo.
Prof. Maurizio Prato insists the research process will take at least another 10 years before clinical trials can start. « We don’t yet want to give false hopes to patients and their families », he specifies. But his findings will, in time, provide significant new understanding of spinal cord injuries, leading to breakthrough advances in improving treatment. By means of innovative carbon nanomaterials scaffolds, the project’s ambitious aim is to make paralyzed people walk again. By supporting it through the endowment of the Chair, AXA wants to give every advantage to Prof. Prato and his host institution, the CIC biomaGUNE.