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9 May, 2020 - 21:35 By Tony Quested

Cambridge academic wins £1m from BBSRC to fund brain research

Cambridge University bioengineer Dr Christopher Proctor has been named a David Phillips Fellow and awarded £1 million in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish his first independent research group.

The aim of Dr Proctor’s Fellowship is to develop tools to understand the brain. This will include implants with neuron-like features that can safely deliver a wide range of chemicals in the brain with precise control of when, where, and how much chemical is delivered.

Dr Proctor’s latest innovation is electrophoretic drug delivery devices which are able to deliver drugs with exceptional temporal and spatial precision. The technology has emerged as a promising platform for treating pathologies ranging from neuropathic pain to epilepsy. 

As the range of applications continues to expand there is an urgent need to understand the underlying physics and estimate materials and device parameters for optimal performance. Here, computational modelling of the electrophoretic drug delivery device is carried out. 

Three critical performance indices, namely, the amount of drug transported, the pumping efficiency and the ON/OFF ratio are investigated as a function of initial drug concentration in the device and fixed charge concentration in the ion exchange membrane. The results provide guidelines for future materials and device design with an eye towards tailoring device performance to match disease-specific demands.

Dr Proctor says implantable devices offer an alternative to systemic delivery of drugs for the treatment of neurological disorders and the study of local circuits in the brain.

The work represents another advance in the development of soft, flexible electronics that interface well with human tissue. It builds on prior collaborative research involving Dr Proctor and Professor George Malliaras, Prince Philip Professor of Technology, that successfully demonstrated how an electronic device implanted into the brain can detect, stop and even prevent epileptic seizures. This new treatment for epilepsy works by delivering very small amounts of drug directly to the seizure focus.

Dr Proctor has also been working on an implantable nerve stimulator for the treatment of chronic pain. This ongoing research aims to reduce the invasiveness of implants used in the clinic today and will be another area of focus for Dr Proctor’s research group.

He said: “Our ability to understand our most complex organ – the brain – is currently constrained by the absence of minimally invasive tools for controlled chemical delivery in the brain. What I propose during this BBSRC Fellowship is a new solution to this problem: a tiny implant that will enable new discoveries concerning how the brain works and what can be done when it goes wrong.

“As chemical signalling is fundamental to all living systems from animals to plants to bacteria, these same research tools may eventually be adapted to other systems to enable fundamental discoveries impacting all manners of life from agriculture to healthcare.”

Dr Proctor’s  research is focused on engineering SMART therapeutic systems to provide better care for more patients. Ongoing project themes include:

Electronic drug delivery
Targeted drug delivery can focus treatment on the region of the body affected by a given pathology thereby enhancing the effectiveness of the treatment while reducing side effects inherent in systemic treatments. Towards that end, we are leveraging the ion conductivity of polymers to develop implantable devices that can deliver drugs precisely when and where they are needed. We showed this to be a promising method for managing epileptic seizures. We are currently adapting this technology as a research tool to understand the brain as well as for treating pathologies such as chronic pain and Parkinson’s disease.

Minimally invasive implants
Existing clinical neurostimulation implants often require invasive surgical procedures that limit the eligible patient pool. We are developing novel device architectures and control systems that can allow for key-hole like surgery of large implants.

Light-controlled therapeutics
Incorporating optoelectronic and photonic components into therapeutic systems could meet the clinical demand for systems to be selective and minimally invasive as well as energy efficient. We are exploring new avenues in light-controlled therapeutics to reach therapeutic targets not currently accessible with existing systems.

Fundamentals underpinning therapeutic devices
Though much work has been done to demonstrate the potential of emerging therapeutic devices little effort has been placed on understanding the physics behind them. Principal investigations into the underlying working mechanisms and critical electronic/ionic/photonic/biotic interfaces within these devices will lead to critical performance improvements and may open the door to additional functionalities.

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