Australian researchers have created a hydrogel that could be used to better treat Parkinson’s disease – and possibly other neurological conditions. It’s currently shown to be effective in rats.
Hydrogels are water-containing gels made from networks of polymers. This hydrogel, described in Advanced Functional Materials, works by delivering cells and proteins to the brain to restore tissue that has been damaged by Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease is associated with a lack of dopamine in the brain, and is currently often treated with dopamine-related drugs. Clinical trials have shown that stem cells transplanted into the brain could work better than these medications, as well as avoiding their side effects, but it’s difficult to transplant them effectively.
Enter the hydrogel, developed and tested by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.
David Nisbet, a professor at the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, and co-author on the paper, says the hydrogel is “protein-inspired”.
“The hydrogel is made out of natural amino acids, which essentially are the building blocks of proteins,” he says.
“We actually match the order of some of our amino acids to the protein structures within the brain. In particular, our hydrogel mimics some of the amino-acid sequences in laminin.”
Laminins are large proteins in the body that help provide structure and support to cells.
“The scaffold and the sequences of [the hydrogel] amino acids can instruct the cells how to behave,” says Nisbet.
While the chemical properties of the gel make it work once it’s in the brain, it’s the physical properties that ease its addition to the body.
“When we shake or apply energy to the hydrogel, the substance turns into a liquid, which allows us to inject it into the brain through a very small capillary using a needle,” says Nisbet.
“Once inside the brain, the gel returns to its solid form and provides support for the stem cells to replace lost dopamine neurons.”
The researchers tested the efficacy of the gel on rats that had been treated with a neurotoxin to simulate Parkinson’s disease.
“When we introduced the gel technology with the stem cells, we saw huge improvement in the animals’ coordinated paw movement and overall motor function recovery,” says Nisbet. He adds that the gel could also be useful for treating strokes and other neurological conditions.
Professor Clare Parish, head of the Stem Cells and Neural Development Laboratory at the Florey Institute, says the gel now needs to pass through human clinical trials to be considered for Parkinson’s treatment.
“We must do our due diligence and ensure we check all the right boxes regarding safety, efficacy and regulatory approval before we can take this technology into the clinic, but we hope it can be available for use in the not-too-distant future,” she says.
Made as it is from proteins, the gel would be fairly easy and cheap to manufacture on a large scale, if it is shown to work in people.
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Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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