A team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have shown that a biomaterial based on the structure of a neurotransmitter can induce the growth of nerve cell processes.
Yadong Wang and his colleagues at Georgia Tech’s Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering designed and synthesized a biopolymer based on the structure of dopamine. When added to cultured rat pheochromocytoma cells (PC12 cells, left) or primary sensory neurons, the polymer induced the outgrowth of neurites. The material, named PCD, is also biodegradable.
Like dopamine, PCD contains two hydroxyl groups; both functional groups are essential for its function, as removal of either one abolished the activity of the polymer.
As well as promoting neurite outgrowth, PCD was also more effective at inducing neuronal differentiation than either poly-D-lysine or laminin, two common substrates on which cultured nerve cells are grown.
Wang’s team now plans to determine if PCD also induces synapse formation, and if polymers based on the structure of other neurotransmitters will also induce neurite outgrowth.
The results are promising, but the effects of the PCD have only been observed in cultured cells. Although it did not cause any damage when implanted next to the sciatic nerve of rats, it remains to be seen whether or not the biopolymer can induce neurite outgrowth in vivo. If it does, then it, and similar materials, could perhaps be used in humans with damaged peripheral nerves.