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University nanofiber research could help cure multiple sclerosis

By Anna Rozenberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 15, 2012

In the biomedical engineering community, one University lab has been increased attention after it uncovered a study that may help find cures for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.

The study — recently published in Nature Methods, a monthly publication that aims to inform readers about developments in well-known research techniques — analyzed the functionality of the central nervous system to better understand nervous system disorders.

Joseph Corey, an assistant professor of neurology at the University’s Medical School, has been working on the research in partnership with a California-based lab run by Jonah Chan, an associate professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Chan explained that axons, a part of nerve cells essential for nervous system function, need to be insulated by myelin, a protective material made by other types of body cells, in order to work efficiently.

“If you look at any type of wire, it’s covered by some type of insulation. If you look at any power cord, it has this sheath that surrounds it and this is similar to what myelin is,” Chan said. “In the nervous system we have axons that transmit electrical signals throughout the nervous system.”

Corey said that his lab produced nanofibers — man-made, synthetic fibers with properties mimicking axons' properties — and Chan’s lab ran the biological experiments with those fibers. They discovered that the nanofibers with a larger diameter are more likely to naturally be myelinated.

“We’ve known for a long time that axons — these cables of the nerve cells that conduct electricity from one cable to another — if they are particularly large, are myelinated,” Corey said. “The truth of the matter is that we have never known why that’s the case.”

The research specifically looked at the sensitivity of oligodendrocytes — cells found in the brain and spinal cord that are one type of myelinating cell — in response to physical properties of nanofiber diameter.

“The whole idea here is to understand the basic environment that is conducive for the cells to form myelin,” Chan said. “If we can get any clues or insight into the way the cells form this myelin, we might have ways to repair the nervous system after demyelination — like in (multiple sclerosis) where the immune system attacks the myelin.”

Corey stressed that he was able to conduct the research because his background in biomedical engineering and neurology allowed him to design nanofibers in a way never attempted before.

Sam Tuck, a University alum and member of the research team, said that as a biology major, he was seeking a job in a laboratory when his aunt, who went to college with Corey, told him about the opening.

“Just recently (our research has) been getting all this cool recognition,” Tuck said. “It’s something I definitely never found myself getting into because it’s a much more material science (than biology).”

Tuck primarily conducted electrospinning in the lab, a process that involves dissolving plastic pellets and applying electrostatic force to the solution until fibers form and collect.

“It’s something that you often have to repeat over and over again because it’s such a finicky process,” Tuck said.

He said, until Corey’s lab, he had never heard of electrospinning being utilized for tissue research, adding that he has since seen many schools starting to use the process in tissue research.

“There’s a lot of promise for stem cell research,” he said. “It’s not limited to just nerve regeneration.”


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