Keele Professor to study next generation technologies for spinal injury repair

A Keele Professor has embarked on a two year Visiting Academic Fellowship at the University of Cambridge studying the latest technologies for repairing spinal cord injuries.

Professor Divya Chari, of Keele’s School of Medicine, has received a £155,000 grant to work at Cambridge University’s Electrical Engineering Division and Nanoscience Centre, funded by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Healthcare Technologies Discipline Hopper Award.

She has joined the Bioelectronics Group led by Professor George Malliaras, Prince Phillip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge, to train in bioelectronics and microfabrication techniques, and will also undergo training in advanced digital printing technologies in the group of Dr Shery Huang.

The fellowship aims to develop advanced electroactive and biohybrid implants to promote regeneration following neurological injury such as spinal cord injuries.

Repairing an injured spinal cord is a challenging task because injured spinal cords have very little ability to heal themselves after injury. This means there are many serious and difficult consequences for patients and their carers, and a huge cost to the NHS in caring for those with such injuries.

The use of materials that can be surgically delivered into injury areas, in particular jelly-like structures called 'hydrogels', have shown great promise for increasing repair in spinal injuries. These are soft materials which can be moulded into injury sites by clinicians, and allow for injured cells, such as nerve cells or blood vessels, to grow inside the implant.

The research has two elements. First, Professor Chari will be trained in producing and testing soft materials that can deliver electrical stimulation. Secondly, she will study new digital printing methods to generate soft 3D hydrogels which have patterns created in them. These patterns can serve as 'guides' within the hydrogels that help repairing cells grow in a targeted direction, and recreate the organised structure of the spinal cord that has been disrupted by the injury.

The materials from the two stages will then be combined to create a 'hybrid implant' for delivery into the spinal cord, which could be capable of guiding the growth of repairing nerve cells and be electrically stimulated at the same time, to improve repair.

This research could lay the groundwork for the development of an advanced class of materials that can better repair damaged spinal cords than those which are currently available. It is hoped that such work will result in a major new field of research to develop soft and electrically active biohybrid implants for the repair of spinal cord injury, allowing for the development of new treatments for such injuries.

Professor Chari said: “I am really grateful to the EPSRC for enabling a novel training opportunity at this stage of my career. I am learning an enormous amount in the field of neuroengineering and neuroelectronics, working within the Engineering teams. I hope this will lead to an impactful and exciting new aspect to my research.”