An unconventional engineering technique may be able to overcome obstacles linked to regenerating nerves.

Scientists from Iowa State University have developed nanotechnology harnessing inkjet printers that can create multi-layer graphene circuits. A laser-treatment process, aimed at enhancing the surface structure and the circuit’s conductivity, follows the technique.

The end result is a product showing promise in transforming mesenchymal stem cells (cells that form bone, cartilage, and fat cells) into Schwann cells, which play a role in a variety of roles in promoting the health of nerve cells.

The treated circuit contains raised, rough, and 3D nanostructures where the mesenchymal stem cells adhere and grow. The graphene component serves as a strong conductor of electricity and heat while also being strong, durable, and biocompatible.

The laser-treatment process selectively irradiating inkjet-printed graphene oxide eradicates debris like ink binders, physically stitching together millions of tiny graphene flakes significantly enhancing the material’s electrical conductivity.

Overall, electrical stimulation proved to be effective, transforming 85 percent of the stem cells into their Schwann-like counterparts compared to 75 percent using a standard chemical process. These electrically-differentiated cells were able to produce 80 nanograms per milliliter of nerve growth factors compared to 55 nanograms per milliliter in the chemical process group.

“This technology could lead to a better way to differentiate stem cells,” said co-first author and Iowa state postdoctoral research associate in chemical and biological engineering Metin Uz, Ph.D., in a statement.

Schwann cells form sheaths around the tail-like parts of nerve cells that produce electrical impulses while also promoting regeneration of these axons. These cells are useful for nerve cell regeneration, but can be hard to come by, forcing researchers to rely on an expensive, arduous process to transform them.

Some of the potential benefits of this technology arethat it could lower the costs and time commitment for differentiating these stem cells into the Schwann ones.

However, refining this method could alter the approach to how nerve injuries are treated inside the body.

“These results help pave the way for in vivo peripheral nerve regeneration where the flexible graphene electrodes could conform to the injury site and provide intimate electrical stimulation for nerve cell regrowth,” according to a summary of the team’s findings.

The study was published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials.