The brain is a challenging organ to research, but polymer research may help researchers find answers. Image Source: Flickr User: neil conway

Evolution has dictated that the brain, the control center for the entire body, be encased in a hard shell and subsequent sets of membranes to protect it. Unfortunately, this makes researching an active, living brain absurdly challenging. New developments in polymer technologies have allowed researchers to create multifunctional fibres no thicker than a human hair for optogenetic investigation of brain function.1

This kind of novel material could help address the improvement that is so desperately needed in delivering medications, viral vectors or just investigating hard to access organs and tissues within the body. Scientific breakthroughs such as the aforementioned polymer, created with the aid of innovative lab software may be the key to cracking the code on a number of diseases and ailments in the human body.

Getting To The Root

Optogenetics is a process by which living biologic tissue is controlled using light. When it is employed for the interrogation of neural pathways, opsins, which sensitize neurons to light, are delivered and subsequently illuminated wherein electrical recordings are taken. To date, most optogenetic research has relied on the implantation of stiff materials, generally metallic, that cannot remain implanted in animal models for long periods of time.

Additionally, while optogenetics is helping to illuminate a number of functions and actions of the brain that were previous poorly understood, it often relies on many devices and a touch of chance—when delivering the virus and attempting to align different devices, there’s a chance that researchers can miss their mark and not be able to get the necessary recording, slowing their project down. To work around these issues and to assess biocompatibility, researchers would benefit from comprehensive computer software that allows them to model and create different materials in silico before attempting to use it in research.

The multifunctional fibre that researchers created is able to perform all of the functions needed during the optogenetics process: delivery of viral vectors, light stimulation and recording are capabilities of this new material that have been demonstrated using animal models. Additionally, based on its degree of flexibility and ability to mimic brain tissue, it is very biocompatible. The fibre itself is a composite of polyethylene doped with graphene flakes.

Using a similar construction method to mille feuille, pairs of layers of graphene flakes are added, then compressed, and so on, which contributes to a four to five times conductivity increase. The researchers note that there is still room for improvement in this technology; they are endeavouring to make it more biocompatible, and are hoping to further reduce the diameter and increase the flexibility.

As they look forward, researchers may benefit from modern lab software. So far, they’ve had a great degree of success in using a mille feuille method of construction. By assessing the base materials on the computer, it may be possible to reduce the size of graphene or increase the fluidity of the polymer base attaining a higher level of compatibility without compromising on function.

Creating More Biocompatible Materials

The mechanical aspects of accessing different parts of the body without disrupting regular function is only one component of the big picture of creating better polymers for medical research. Others include:

  • Tissue Mimicry. Many of the materials that have been used in the body to date have failed to adequately mimic the natural feel and movement of biological materials. For instance, a surgical steel plate will never feel like a collar bone. With the invention of 3D printers and comprehensive lab software, it is possible to model, create and produce materials that more closely resemble endogenous tissues.
  • Stability In The Body. The body’s immune system is superb at finding and clearing foreign bodies. Any material being implanted, even if only temporarily for research, needs to endure biological attacks from the body. Many materials can be modelled with innovative lab software to ensure that the form they take is the least invasive to the body which will prevent disruption of an experiment or rejection of a therapeutic application.
  • Production Ability. The body is not a set of predictable angles and the its components vary from one person to the next. The material being created needs to be able to be flexible enough to be produced in multiple forms. Modern lab software that integrates with systems like 3D printers and can predict the printability of these materials will be crucial to creating better implants and polymers for medical research.

With BIOVIA Materials Studio, comprehensive models can be created to allow researchers to better predict what will work saving both time and money, bring your product to market faster. This is an exciting new realm of biomedical engineering and research and Materials Studio can help you wade through this previously unexplored terrain. Please contact us today to learn more about how our software options can support the efforts of your lab.

  1. “One-step optogenetics with multifunctional flexible polymer fibers,” February 20, 2017, http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.4510.html