Researchers looking for ways to regenerate nerves can have a hard time obtaining key tools of their trade.
Schwann cells are an example. They form sheaths around axons, the tail-like parts of nerve cells that carry electrical impulses. They promote regeneration of those axons. And they secrete substances that promote the health of nerve cells.
In other words, they’re very useful to researchers hoping to regenerate nerve cells, specifically peripheral nerve cells, those cells outside the brain and spinal cord.
But Schwann cells are hard to come by in useful numbers.
So researchers have been taking readily available and noncontroversial mesenchymal stem cells (also called bone marrow stromal stem cells that can form bone, cartilage and fat cells) and using a chemical process to turn them, or as researchers say, differentiate them into Schwann cells. But it’s an arduous, step-by-step and expensive process.
Researchers at Iowa State University are exploring what they hope will be a better way to transform those stem cells into Schwann-like cells. They’ve developed a nanotechnology that uses inkjet printers to print multi-layer graphene circuits and also uses lasers to treat and improve the surface structure and conductivity of those circuits.
It turns out mesenchymal stem cells adhere and grow well on the treated circuit’s raised, rough and 3-D nanostructures. Add small doses of electricity – 100 millivolts for 10 minutes per day over 15 days – and the stem cells become Schwann-like cells (…)
“This technology could lead to a better way to differentiate stem cells,” Uz said. “There is huge potential here.”
The electrical stimulation is very effective, differentiating 85 percent of the stem cells into Schwann-like cells compared to 75 percent by the standard chemical process, according to the research paper. The electrically differentiated cells also produced 80 nanograms per milliliter of nerve growth factor compared to 55 nanograms per milliliter for the chemically treated cells (…)
That led to experimental attempts to grow stem cells on printed graphene and then to electrical stimulation experiments.
“We knew this would be a really good platform for electrical stimulation,” Das said. “But we didn’t know it would differentiate these cells.”
But now that it has, the researchers say there are new possibilities to think about. The technology, for example, could one day be used to create dissolvable or absorbable nerve regeneration materials that could be surgically placed in a person’s body and wouldn’t require a second surgery to remove.