Using seaweed to heal brain injuries: Researchers pioneer new technique

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13 Sep 2017 --- Australian researchers have developed a new technique that can heal damaged brain tissue using the curative properties of seaweed. Working with Tasmanian biopharmaceutical company Marinova, the researchers combined a natural anti-inflammatory polysaccharide found in seaweed with short peptides to create the hydrogel scaffold that matches the structure of healthy brain tissue.

Dr. Richard Williams from RMIT University and Associate Professor David Nisbet from The Australian National University have created a “hydrogel scaffold” that works in damaged brains. Healthy cells exist in a scaffold that is mostly water with proteins forming a web, known as a hydrogel. 

The breakthrough offers new hope for treating brain injuries and damaged tissue. 

Click to Enlarge“Traumatic brain injury results in devastating long-term functional damage as the natural inflammatory response to injury prevents regrowth,” Williams said. “This stops or prevents the healing process. So it’s critical that you find a natural way to stop the inflammation and scarring, yet encourage healing.” 

The researchers combined a natural anti-inflammatory polysaccharide (sugar molecule) found in seaweed with short peptides (small proteins) to create the hydrogel scaffold that matches the structure of healthy brain tissue.

“We used fragments of these proteins to form an artificial hydrogel that the body recognizes as healthy tissue. We then decorated this web with the sugars found in the seaweed to create the anti-inflammatory hydrogel system,” Williams said. “The seaweed stops the scar, and the scaffold lets the cells grow. The Japanese have long used seaweed for therapeutic purposes, and it turns out there is an abundance of similar seaweed in Tasmania.” 

The research team then injected the hydrogel scaffold into a damaged brain, with remarkable results. 

“The hydrogel scaffold was shown to support the wound, prevent scarring and improve healing,” Williams said. 

“This potentially allows an entirely natural, biomaterial approach to treating the damage caused by traumatic brain injury and stroke by allowing the brain to repair itself,” Nisbet notes. 

“This research has potential applications in the areas of wound healing, joint and bone repair and brain injury recovery. It also holds potential benefits in a post-surgical setting,” Claire Smoorenburg, Marinova Marketing & Communications Officer, tells NutritionInsight

The breakthrough shows that the brain is likely to regrow when injected with the hydrogel, radically modifying how it reacts to injury. 

“For the first time, we have shown that we can engineer a tissue construct that allows regrowth in damaged brain tissue, increasing the potential for repair and regeneration,” Nisbet said. The two researchers are now exploring how the treatment can be applied to other technologies, like 3D bio-printed implants, to replace damaged muscle, nerves, and bones. This work will be undertaken at RMIT. 

“As it turns out, controlling the inflammation associated with surgery is vital to improve healing. The hydrogel can change how the body reacts to these implants, meaning it is much less likely to reject them,” Williams said.

Speaking of the company’s next plans, Smoorenburg tells Nutritioninsight: “Our main R&D focus at the moment is in gastric health and integrative oncology. We have some particularly exciting human clinical trials currently in place investigating the benefits of fucoidan as a supplementary cancer therapy in a range of tumor types. We look forward to sharing these results very soon.”

By Lucy Gunn

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