Engineers at the University of Wollongong are collaborating with surgeons at the University of Texas at Dallas to develop materials that can provide targeted medical treatment. An emerging field called electroceuticals, where electrical stimulation is used to modify the behavior of tissues and organs affected by illness, reportedly shows promise.
Part of this research focuses on utilizing new material developments and additive manufacturing techniques to develop implantable structures that can monitor, maintain and restore function in neural tissues. However, one of the biggest barriers is finding electrode materials that can be safely implanted in the body. Materials like metal are too rigid and can damage tissues.
The team worked on creating a new body-friendly material that combines the electrical properties of an electrode with the mechanical properties of a suture. The result is a fiber called a ‘sutrode’. The ultrathin fiber is spun from graphene using wet spinning fabrication techniques. It’s half the diameter of a human hair, strong, flexible and maintains its electrical properties, according to the developers. The fibers are also stiff enough to penetrate soft tissues, yet flexible enough to accommodate for micro-movements once implanted.
Professor Gordon Wallace, Director of the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IRPI) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), explains that harnessing graphene’s unique mechanical, electrical and biological properties opens a world of possibilities for this new material. “We’ve long held a vision that graphene could be used to enable better electrical communication within the body, and the sutrode has shown that this is possible,” Wallace said.
Professor Mario Romero-Ortega from the University of Texas at Dallas called this recent development a “pretty big deal”. “The sutrode provides unprecedented spatial control in the electrical stimulation of nerves, which is crucial in effectively stimulating specific nerves, as well as unprecedented sensitivity in recording these signals,” he said.
Romero-Ortega added that being able to tap into the ways vital organs communicate with one another will allow surgeons to ‘hack’ the signals from a diseased organ and adjust its neural signals to mimic those of a healthy organ.
According to the developers, this has implications for monitoring and treating cardiac rhythms, hypertension, obesity, epilepsy and more. Wallace said the team is now in talks with clinicians to discuss applications for the sutrode.