Prof Jenny Pringle: Tackling new challenges and opportunities
Jun 21 2021
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) Chief Investigator Associate Professor Jeremy Crook isn’t who comes to mind when you think of Mary Shelley’s fantastical Dr Frankenstein. Yet, when he says words like ‘electrified tissues’ and ‘brain on the bench’, you start to wonder if he might start running around the labs at the University of Wollongong shouting “It’s alive, alive!”.
The project team from ACES, including Jeremy, ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace, and ACES Research Fellow Dr Eva Tomaskovic-Crook, are not building an 8-foot tall creature, but are instead creating novel ways to use human stem cells to assist in regenerative tissue engineering research for the treatment of diseases.
In particular, the team is investigating use of electrical stimulation to influence cell behaviour as a way to treat traumatic brain injuries and neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. This research was recently published in Advanced Healthcare Materials and highlights research and the use of technologies developed by ACES in collaboration with Jadranka Travas-Sejdic from the University of Auckland and Jari Hyttinen from Tampere University of Technology.
Progress in this area has been recognised at a national level, with Jeremy, Gordon and Eva nominated for the 2019 Research Australia Health and Medical Research Awards. The team is a finalist in the Frontiers Research Award category, which recognises transformative research projects that extend existing knowledge and understandings within health and medical research that will enable Australia’s health system to position itself as a global leader.
It is, in fact, Jeremy who draws the first comparison between the team’s work in using electricity to produce advanced living three-dimensional human neural tissues in the laboratory, and that of the fictional scientist in Mary Shelley’s 19th Century novel.
“We have been working for a number of years at ACES on using electricity to produce three-dimensional human neural tissues in the laboratory,” Jeremy explains.
“Our most recent work captures the imagination by echoing Frankenstein’s use of electricity to restore life to tissue, though we are applying it to stem cells to form brand-new 3D brain-like tissues.”
A human body has many different types of cells, and each set of cells has a job to do – think blood cells, muscle cells, fat cells, neural cells… Stem cells, however, are cells that do not have specific roles but can transform into more specialised cells that are required by the body.
Now mixing cells and electricity surely can’t be a good idea, right?
“Actually, our bodies are naturally bioelectric, with organs and component tissues operating electrically for normal physiological function, including during development and healing following injury,” Jeremy said.
Bioelectricity is used by our cells to regulate their function. In neural tissues, biolelectricity is generated so that cells can communicate with one another by impulses along nerve fibres. Prompted by the body’s natural electricity, the ACES team demonstrated the ability to sustain stem cells with electrical stimulation in 3D and accelerate their differentiation into excitable nerve cells with specialised connections. An additional important discovery was an increased responsiveness of nerve cells to drug treatment.
This world-first approach brings together several cutting-edge technologies, including a novel method of engineering 3D human neural tissues from neural stem cells and biogel, as well as an array of 3D printed electrodes. The platform integrates biologically relevant human cell lines with advanced techniques for 3D tissue engineering and 3D electrical stimulation that better represents human cell growth and tissue inside the human body.
The platform offers a number of exciting opportunities in both research and translation, including modelling tissue development, function, dysfunction, pharmaceutical responsivity, as well as electroceuticals and regenerative medicine.
“In regards to electroceuticals, our findings are informing the development of even more advanced next generation systems for regenerative medicine and pharmaceuticals augmentation,” Jeremy said.
“Although our current research focuses on applying our platform to neural tissue, it could also be reasonably applied to other tissue types for research and medicine.
“Going forward, our work could assist in the treatment of a multitude of conditions including neurological disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke to name a few, as well as tackling the current shortage of donor tissues for vital replacement therapies following trauma and disease.”
ACES Director Professor Gordon Wallace said the team’s success was supported by their international research partners who brought critical skills and a breadth of knowledge necessary for success.
“This work is an excellent example of the importance of global collaboration in delivering efficient, effective and high impact advances in research and innovation,” Gordon said.
“Successful projects such as this are the result of our highly skilled researchers contributing to a diverse and multidisciplinary team assembled from across the globe. Building these links enables the realisation of exciting new technologies and platforms that can have significant positive impacts in our communities.”
For Jeremy, he is excited to see the full potential of electrifying stem cells to provide treatments for debilitating conditions.
“We are entering a new ‘age of electricity’. Importantly, the contribution of this technology is a world-first, and the ability to generate clinically relevant prototypes swiftly will be key to transforming this research through to engineered solutions that make a real difference in people’s lives.”
Research Australia is the national peak body that promotes and champions health and medical research, and represents organisations across the entire health and medical research pipeline. The Research Australia Health and Medical Research Awards have been held annually since 2003 to celebrate the people who make a difference in the lives of the Australian community through their contribution to health and medical research.
The 17th Research Australia Health and Medical Research Awards will be held on Thursday 14 November at Metropolis Events in Melbourne.