UOW makes advances in nerve repair

The University of Wollongong has stamped its name on yet another research breakthrough with the development of an inkjet printer that assists nerve cell generation.Professor Gordon Wallace said the innovation was another step towards the "Holy Grail" of nerve repair: mending a broken spinal cord.The process involves a printer that produces lines of organic ink containing proteins that support cell growth.The lines, which resemble those on a piece of sheet music, are electrically stimulated to produce an environment along which nerve cells can grow.The research team behind the findings is with UOW's Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI), which is the lead partner in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), based at the Innovation Campus.Prof Wallace, who is the IPRI director and executive research director of ACES, said the ultimate aim was to produce a 3D conduit that could be inserted between damaged or severed nerves and could grow new, reconnecting cells.He said the work would assist not just the repair of damaged nerves, but reconnection of body parts such as severed hands and fingers.The research team began by using a regular inkjet printer which has since been perfected for cell growth. A second "home-built" printer has been developed for the 3D research."These are the first printable conductors that we could grow nerve cells on," Prof Wallace said."The advance is as much about the hardware as the chemistry, redesigning the printers so that you can realise the end goal."Initial trials that involved inserting a 1cm length of nerve cell conduit between severed nerves have been successful. These will be stepped up by the end of the month, with advanced trials conducted at St Vincent's Hospital.Concurrently, the team is working with a group at the University of Texas to attach sensory and motor nerves to robotic hands so that they can be driven by the brain.Prof Wallace said the ultimate hope would be to use the research to devise a means of reconnecting nerves in the spinal cord."That's our Holy Grail, that's what we're looking for," he said.

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