Week in BioE (October 20, 2017)

spina bifida
Computed tomography showing spina bifida occulta (arrow).

Fetal Repair Without Surgery?

Spina bifida is a fairly common type of birth defect caused by incomplete closure of the backbone and tissue surrounding the spinal cord. Fetal surgery can repair the defect before delivery, but this invasive surgery can lead to high risk preterm delivery.

A new material may dramatically reduce the invasiveness of surgery needed to correct spina bifida. In a new article in Macromolecular Bioscience, surgeons and bioengineers from the University of Colorado report on one of these alternatives. One of the lead authors was Daewon Park, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioengineering. Dr. Park and his colleagues developed a reverse thermal gel, which is an injectable liquid that forms a gel at higher temperatures when injected into the body. Ultimately a gel like this one could be injected at or near the spine, where it would cover the defect in a spina bifida patient, harden into a gel, and ultimately repair the defect by deploying stem cells or engineered tissue.

The research team’s most recent study indicates that their gel retained its stability in amniotic fluid and was compatible with neural tube cells. They also tested the gel in two animal models, with successful results. The gel is still far from being used in actual fetal surgery cases, but the authors will continue to test the gel under conditions increasingly similar to the human amniotic sac.

Building Better Brains

UCLA scientists have developed an improved system for generating brain structures from stem cells. The team of scientists, led by Bennett G. Novitch, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at UCLA, report their findings in Cell Reports.  Importantly, the methods used by Dr. Novitch and his colleagues fine-tuned and simplified earlier efforts in this area, developing a method that did not require any specific reactors to generate the tissue. They were also able to generate tissue resembling the basal ganglia for the first time, indicating promise for using these tissues to model diseases affecting that part of the brain, including Parkinson’s disease.

Next, the authors demonstrated the usefulness of these “organoids” in modeling damage due to Zika virus. After exposing the generated organoids to Zika, the authors measured the cellular responses of the tissue, demonstrating the ability to use these tissues to model the disease.  Given the recent epidemic of Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere, which focused attention on the virus’s effects on the human brain, in addition to microcephaly and other birth defects when the disease is transmitted from pregnant mothers to their children, understanding how Zika affects the developing brain is key to determining how to prevent the damage it causes and possibly repairing it. Reliable models of brain development are necessary, and the UCLA team’s findings seem to indicate that they’ve found one.

Rebuilding Brain Circuits After Injury

Among the issues in the prevention and treatment of head injury is that we still lack complete information about the mechanism underlying these injuries.  However, a key piece of basic research recently published by a team at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, demonstrates that a key aspect of this mechanism occurs in the axons, which are the stalks that grow from neurons to signal to each other. In an article published in Nature Communications, the team, led by Anne Marion Taylor, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at UNC, reports on using microfluidics technology to determine how neurons react when axons are severed. The authors found that damage to axons causes a compensatory loss of collateral connections to neighboring neurons. This loss in connectivity could be reversed by adding a protein, netrin-1, into the solution surrounding the neurons. Although netrin-1 was already known for its importance in rebuilding damaged axons, this work showed that netrin-1 has more widespread effects in rebuilding neural circuits after trauma.

Seeing Inside the Body

One of the key problems with minimally invasive surgical procedures is difficulty in shining sufficient light in the target region to see and manipulate tissue during surgery. Glass filaments are currently used, but they pose a health risk because they can break off in the body. A new citrate polymer fiber invented by scientists at Penn State University represents a much safer alternative to glass filaments. Reporting in Biomaterials, the scientists, led by Jian Yiang, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State, describe how they developed the fiber and show how much less likely this polymer filament is to break when manipulated. If biocompatibility tests show that this polymer does not affect tissue health, it could eventually appear in surgical microscopes and make glass filaments a thing of the past.
Creating better illumination tools is one way of seeing inside the body. An elegant device developed by a team including MIT biomedical engineer Giovanni Traverso, Ph.D., consists of a proof-of-concept ingestable sensor that attaches to the stomach lining and can provide upper gastrointestinal system information for two days. The team reports on the device in a recent issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. Unlike earlier ingestable diagnostic devices, the sensor developed by Dr. Traverso and his colleagues uses the contraction of the gut to power the device. It also surpassed pill-sized ingestable cameras by providing data from a longer time period.

Implants That Grow With Chilren

Using implants to treat medical problems in children is difficult for one simple reason: children can quickly outgrow their devices. The problem has been particularly acute among pediatric cardiac surgeons, for whom implants are commonly used devices. Now, thanks to collaboration between surgeons and a team including Jeffrey Karp, Ph.D., a Harvard biomedical engineer, valve implants that grow with patients could be here soon. Inspired by the clever design of a Chinese finger trap, the collaborators developed an implant that grows longer but thinner over time. They report on their device in Nature Biomedical Engineering, including its proof-of-principle testing in growing piglets. Based on these data, the study authors will continue to adapt and develop the device.

Say What?

Humans are especially good at listening to many voices at once or focusing on one voice in a crowded room. However, we really don’t know how we do this so well. Scientists at Imperial College London (ICL) solved part of this mystery. Reporting in eLife, the ICL authors developed a mathematical method to measure how the response to speech in a person’s brainstem changed when that person’s attention moved from one person to another. Perceptible changes in brainstem activity occurred when a person was intently listening to someone, and it disappeared when the person ignored speech. In addition to supplementing what we already know about how the brain stem participates in sensory tasks, the ICL team’s findings mean that damage to the brainstem – common to several neurological disorders – can easily affect how we process speech and interact with each other.