Injuries in the peripheral nervous system are a major health problem and a challenge for medicine. Currently, most of the therapies are based on post-injury surgery. However, these interventions have low efficiency in terms of restoring lost functions.
A research group at the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) led by José Antonio del Río, Principal Investigator of the Cellular and Molecular Neurobiotechnology and Arnau Hervera, Post-Doctoral researcher in the same group, have developed a device —lab-on-a-chip— to study and repair injuries in the nervous system by combining two technologies based in bioengineering.
Microfluidics —which uses sistems that process or manipulate very small quantities of fluids through channels with the aim of studying the response to different stimuli— and optogenetics —which combines light and genetic engineering to control the neuronal activity—. This last one is extremely useful in neurobiology because enables the modulation of cellular activity using light, without the need of electrical field stimulation, which is nonspecific and can cause cell damage.
Thanks to the combination of both techniques’ experts have discovered that the muscle sends regenerative signals to the neurons in order to promote reconnexion and restorage of functions and contraction control which was lost after the injury.
According to Arnau Hervera, this discovery “allows a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying motor neuron injuries”, a type of cells responsible for producing the stimuli that cause the contraction of different muscle groups in the organism. Accordingly, the researchers add that this finding “opens a pop-up window so that in the future the effects of current rehabilitation therapies can be improved”.
All this is collected in a study performed with mice cells recently published in Cells magazine which demonstrates that an increase in muscle activity is capable of inducing axonal regeneration, essential for the restoration of lost functions after an injury.
The authors of this work, in which the Nanobioengineering group at IBEC led by Josep Samitier director of the Institute, underline the possible use of this methodology to model the study of other diseases of the nervous system such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), whose origin is related to the death of motor neurons.
“The platform that we have designed allows us to place in the same device two different cell types —neuronal and muscle cells—and modulate their activity through light stimuli” points out del Río, who in addition to being Principal Investigator at IBEC is also Professor in the Department of Cell Biology, Physiology and Immunology at the University of Barcelona (UB) and he is also member of the Institute of Neurosciences (UBNeuro) and the Network Center for Biomedical Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (CIBERNED).
Lastly, the professor highlights that by using this type of platforms the need of animal testing can be greatly reduced because this type of testing is replaced by cellular lines to perform the experiments. In fact, the expert hopes that we can soon “humanize” the system, which means, do the same but with human cells which would bring the results closer to their possible use in patients.
Reference article: J. Sala-Jarque, F. Mesquida-Veny, M. Badiola-Mateos, J. Samitier, A. Hervera, J. A. del Río (2020). Neuromuscular Activity Induces Paracrine Signaling and Triggers Axonal Regrowth after Injury in Microfluidic Lab‐On‐Chip Devices. Cells, volume 9, issue 2