Biomedical professor made Pew Scholar for nerve research
Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 07:10
The Pew Charitable Trusts last March named Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Qiaobing Xu a Pew Scholar for his biomedical research on a new method of promoting nerve growth.
Xu will receive $240,000 over the next four years to further his research on collagen, a protein essential for cell growth. He believes the research will have a profound impact on the health care sector.
Implanting collagen is a procedure that has been commonly used throughout medical fields to treat a wide range of injuries, according to an Oct. 7 Tufts Now article. The substance’s tough fibrils, however, make collagen difficult and costly to shape into the necessary biological structures.
Xu said he has discovered a simple, cost-effective solution. By layering thin slices of collagen, shaved with an instrument called a microtome, he is able to form structures that are more adaptable and better suited for medical use.
Using this new technology, Xu is able to construct artificial tissues and nerves, he said.
Kyle Alberti, a third-year graduate student in the School of Engineering who has worked with Xu since June 2011, explained how they can use the collagen to connect nerves.
“Say you were in a car accident or explosion and a section of the nerves in your arm was destroyed,” Alberti said. “Your nerves aren’t going to grow on their own. What doctors can do now is implant a nerve guidance conduit, a tubular structure and connect the two ends of the broken nerve in order to help the nerve grow. We’re trying to build a conduit that works better, faster and is made of natural material — collagen.”
Another benefit of collagen, Alberti explained, is that it is dissolvable.
“Once nerves reconnect, the collagen will break down,” he said.
Xu believes his method will vastly improve health care for patients with nerve and brain injuries. The next obstacle is determining when the technology will be ready for public use.
“Of course this will take time to happen,” Xu said. “When you apply things to humans, you have to first go through a series of trials to make sure that it is safe ... All biomedical research, when it is applied to humans, will take some time.”
Although it is difficult to predict when Xu’s technology will be taken out of the lab, research can take about a decade, he said.
The money awarded from the Pew Scholars Program — $60,000 annually for four years — may help expedite the process, Xu said. Research costs can be oppressive and practical administration research may take years, but Xu said this new source of income will be of great assistance.
“You can hire students and buy chemicals or articles to help conduct research [with the money],” he said.
Nerve re-growth is only one application of Xu and his colleagues’ new science. With increased funding, Xu hopes that his research will lead him to other breakthroughs.