Clemson University bioengineering professor Ning Zhang developed the biomaterial hydrogel, which is injected at the site of injury. The gel has the potential to spur the growth of a patient's own neural stem cells, helping to structurally repair the brain injury site.
"We have seen an increase in brain injuries due to combat, but our strategy can also potentially be applied to head injuries caused by car accidents, falls and gunshot wounds," Zhang said in a statement. "These results that we are seeing in adult lab rats are the first of its kind and show a sustained functional recovery in the animal model of TBI (traumatic brain injury). It also represents one of very few in the traumatic brain injury field that attempts structural repair of the lesion cavity using a tissue-engineering approach."
The gel acts as a vehicle for natural and artificial chemicals that can stimulate biological processes at the site of injury. An injury site often has limited blood supply, causing donor cells to fail to grow or stimulate repair; in research done on rats, Zhang was able re-establish full blood supply at the site of brain injury using the gel, opening the gates for donor brain cells to do their work.
Brain injuries are particularly difficult to repair, since swelling must be controlled in so as not to cause damage.
Popular Science explains the problem with current treatments:
So far, treatments have tried to limit this secondary damage by lowering the temperature or relieving the pressure at the site of injury. However, these techniques are often not very effective.
More recently, scientists have considered transplanting donor brain cells into the wound to repair damaged tissue. This method has so far had limited results when treating brain injuries.
Zhang predicts the procedure may be ready for human testing in three years.