A research group has been examining ways to regenerate nerves as a means to promote healing and to combat specific diseases. One answer appears to be found with Schwann cells
(also called neurilemma cells). These cells are found in the peripheral nervous system (which is outside of the brain and spinal cord), and they produce the myelin sheath around neuronal axons. Axons are the tail-like parts of nerve cells that carry electrical impulses. Schwann cells play an important biological function in that they promote the regeneration of axons; in addition the cells secrete substances that promote the health of nerve cells.
One thing frustrating regenerative medicine is that Schwann cells are difficult to come by. The chief way by which the cells are produced by research is by using mesenchymal stem cells (stem cells that can form bone, cartilage and fat cells). By using chemical processes scientists can control the stem cells so they produce Schwann cells. This remains a challenging process and it is ordinarily difficult to produce a sufficient number of cells.
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To overcome the problem
of mass production, Iowa State University researchers have developed a method that uses a graphene treated circuit. The circuit is raised and built on three-dimensional nanostructures. By providing a small dose of electricity (100 millivolts) this accelerates the process whereby stem cells become Schwann-like cells. Moreover, the process allows for more of the cells to be converted than is possible using conventional processes.
Core to this is the use of nanotechnology whereby inkjet printers print multi-layer graphene circuits onto the cell scaffold. Here graphene's super-material properties are utilized to the full. Graphene is
a very good conductor of electricity and heat. In addition, it is strong, stable and biocompatible.
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The research has been published in
the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials
. The research paper is titled "Stem Cell Differentiation: Electrical Differentiation of Mesenchymal Stem Cells into Schwann-Cell-Like Phenotypes Using Inkjet-Printed Graphene Circuits."