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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Structured Substrates

Structured substrates research involves academics from biological sciences, computer science and medicine. Research aids understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimers, and the effective drug delivery systems.

Organised neurons

Despite their prevalence there is still a lack of effective therapies for the treatment of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Southampton researchers are leading the way by addressing this issue through the development of a microfabricated tissue culture device in which they, and other researchers, will be able to study the molecular basis of neurodegeneration. Neurons present a particular experimental challenge because of their unique morphology and organisation within the nervous system, which is rarely replicated in experimental systems. Dr Tracey Newman (Medicine) and Prof Hugh Perry (Biological sciences) explain “We are adopting lab on a chip technology in conjunction with collaborators in Electronics and Computer Science to develop microfluidic devices that enable the cellular compartments of neurons and their environment to be manipulated independently.” The device, which imposes a high level of cellular organisation in vitro and which is funded by the NC3Rs, will enable us to take a new approach to targeted studies of the neuron.

This technology will have an impact for other colleagues in Biological Sciences who are carrying out research to try to identify and understand the biological mechanisms that cause injury to neurons in neurodegenerative diseases with the long term intention of aiding the development of novel therapeutics. Investigations, using experimental models and human studies, have found that systemic inflammation caused by diverse infections can speed up the rate at which diseases in the brain progress. Researchers may be able to use this technology to uncover how this happens and to find ways of manipulating the process in order to slow or halt the progression of the disease.

Nanomedicine and Targeted Drug Delivery

There is a need to develop effective drug delivery systems for treatment of the central nervous system (CNS). Research is underway to develop self-assembly polymersome nanoparticles for this purpose. Our research centres are using the cochlea, a difficult to access compartment of the CNS, as a model system. In conjunction with collaborators in an EU FP funded project (NanoEar) we set out to produce different species of targeted multi-functional nanoparticles. We have now succeeded in seeing a functional response to nanoparticle delivery to the ear, after delivery via the round window membrane. The polymersomes are manufactured from biocompatible polymers that can be functionalised for the attachment of targeting ligands and are capable of carrying a range of drug types. In addition, their integral polyethylene glycol exterior offers prolonged circulation times whilst minimising immunogenicity.

This nanoparticle technology is now being explored for use in another arena of medicine. Dr Tracey Newman working in collaboration with Dr Ying Cheong, a surgical gynaecologist, has recently received pilot funding, from the Infertility Research Trust, for a study into the enhanced diagnosis of endometriosis using targeted nanoparticles. Endometriosis affects a significant number of women and can result in debilitating pain and may lead to problems with fertility. The aetiology of the disease remains unresolved. Current interventions involve hormone therapy and surgery. Early detection, using nanoparticle reporters, may result in improved outcomes and further our understanding of the biology of the condition.

Image courtesy of Dr Tracey Newman
Taming the Neuron

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