Irish scientists develop tissue-regenerating biomaterial

Collagen and graphene combination also fights infection and enhances recovery

Irish researchers have developed a new “biomaterial” capable of regenerating tissue and eliminating infections, especially those arising in hospital settings.

The breakthrough could also enable enhanced recovery for patients after a heart attack and those recovering from burns.

Researchers at Amber, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science institute at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, working in partnership with scientists at Trinity College Dublin and Eberhard Karls University in Germany, have made the "biohybrid" material.

In a paper published in the journal Advanced Materials, they outline its structure: a combination of the protein collagen (widely available in the human body) and graphene (the world's thinnest material and known to have unique mechanical and electrical properties). It responds to electrical stimuli (such as those from nerves, the spinal cord, heart, brain and muscles).


They underline its potential to improve quality of life for heart-attack survivors, where scar tissue build-up can decrease heart function, by bypassing damaged regions to restore functional activity.

For people with extensive nerve damage, there are currently limited options in terms of repairing nerve injuries extending beyond a small area. However, by combining a biomaterial with proven regenerative capacity, such as collagen, with a material that can carry an electrical stimulus, it may be possible to transmit electrical signals across damaged tissue, resulting in functional restoration of the affected area. This concept “may also have potential in regenerative capabilities of the spinal cord and other areas including the brain”.

‘Bacterial attachment’

The material also prevents “bacterial attachment”, a hugely favourable characteristic which can be applied in the development of next-generation antimicrobial medical devices. “The surface roughness of the material, induced by the introduction of graphene, causes bacterial walls to be burst while simultaneously allowing the heart cells to multiply and grow.”

Prof Fergal O’Brien, deputy director of Amber and lead investigator on the project, explained: “Many cells and tissues in the body are responsive to electrical stimulation, but electroconductive materials are limited because they may kill cells or cause infection.”

Despite progress in biomaterials science, there has been limited success in treating tissues of the heart and nervous system. There are currently no solutions for very large nerve defects and large areas of heart wall damage.

While researchers were “very excited” by the potential of this material for cardiac applications, “it might have potential in a number of other indications such as repairing damaged peripheral nerves or perhaps even spinal cord,” he said.

In a related but separate project, Cúram, the SFI Research Centre in Medical Devices, at NUI Galway, is to partner with five European institutions to develop new advanced therapies and technologies in skin regeneration for the treatment of burns and chronic wounds.

The €4 million NanoGrowSkin project will involve scientists working on developing an improved “chronic wound therapy” incorporating a “bioengineered human skin substitute, improving the manufacturing process, shortening the production time, and enhancing its treatment effectiveness”.

‘Main protective barrier’

Cúram director Prof Abhay Pandit, who will lead the NUIG elements of the project, said: "The skin is the main protective barrier the body has against any external attack. Any skin disease or injury needs to be treated immediately. The most common conditions are wounds, pressure ulcers and burns, and current treatments based on the use of skin grafts, or even on implanting skin originating from a donor, are associated with several problems."

Until now, different types of artificial skin covers have been designed, although none of them has successfully reproduced the accurate structure and functions of the native human skin. “Moreover, they can also present some disadvantages, such as a high bacterial infection risk, low biological activity and low regenerative effectiveness,” he said.

“We aim to overcome the two major drawbacks of severe skin wounds: the urgent need of an effective skin implant in life-threatening situations and to avoid/counteract usual bacterial infections,” Prof Pandit added.

The research teams based in Ireland, Spain, Italy and France will use tissue engineering techniques including nanotechnology, to manufacture autologous material (from the patient's own body). It is a skin substitute comprised of materials whose safety and efficacy has already been proven in humans.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times