UC researchers building better biomaterials for nerve repair

Biomaterials would more closely mimic the electrical signaling of cells in the body

University of Cincinnati researchers are building novel biomaterials that could aid in nerve regeneration and other health applications. 

Existing biomaterials are limited in their capability, so Greg Harris, UC assistant professor of chemical engineering, is creating a material that is piezoelectric to better match how the body reacts to injury. 

Greg Harris headshot

Greg Harris. Photo/provided.

When a person experiences a traumatic injury, the body sends various electrical, chemical and physical signals to the cells and the area surrounding the injury to jumpstart the healing process. Harris’ biomaterial scaffold would mimic the body’s natural injury response using customized electrical signaling, which would occur through the movement of the scaffold to create energy (piezoelectricity), or by targeted ultrasound. This could create an environment that promotes regeneration and integration of tissue. 

Someone with a back injury, for example, might receive treatment for pain relief and recovery through electrical nerve stimulation from electrodes placed externally. Harris said the piezoelectric biomaterial would be like doing the same thing — but from the inside. 

In addition to creating this novel piezoelectric nanofiber material, Harris and his research team are studying the response to the biomaterial by neurons and Schwann cells (the cells within the peripheral nervous system that protect and help repair nerves). 

Harris is the primary investigator on two recent grant awards in support of this line of research, including $500,000 over three years from the Department of Defense Army Medical Research and a $450,000 award from the National Science Foundation.

Harris’ research merges many fields of knowledge across science and engineering. Leyla Esfandiari, UC associate professor of electrical engineering and biomedical engineering, is co-investigator on the project. Harris is also working with College of Medicine researchers and a UC Health neurosurgeon, to further ensure the product of their research is something that is useful to doctors and their patients. 

“The med school, UC Health and the VA Hospital are right next to campus, so there are collaborative efforts and opportunities. You don’t find that at every school,” Harris said. “Being able to get that clinical perspective on some of these engineering things we’re doing is a huge benefit.”

Harris came to UC in 2017 following several years as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University in molecular biology. He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina. In addition to his primary appointment in chemical engineering at UC, he has a secondary appointment in biomedical engineering and is a faculty member in the College of Medicine neuroscience graduate program.