Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy affect thousands of Europeans each year, placing a heavy burden on healthcare budgets and significantly reducing patient quality of life. With support from the EU, a new, large-scale research project with researchers and experts from five European countries aims to address the problem.
Patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy can benefit from medicating with dopamine and other neurotransmitters—i.e. substances which transmit nerve impulses in the brain. By implanting dopamine-producing cells in the brain, the brain can supply itself with medicine. This is the idea behind a major international project headed by DTU Nanotech.
The fact that DTU Nanotech has been chosen to head up the project is in no small part due to researchers at DTU being global leaders in creating new materials and equipment that can control cell production of dopamine.
Cells are grown on a stand of an optical fibre of coal, which produces dopamine when illuminated—offering the potential to control dopamine production. Together with the cells, the optics and control electronics are operated into the brain of the patient.
A single click on your smartphone
“Imagine you have Parkinson’s disease and you’re feeling a bit off colour due to a dopamine deficiency in the brain—simply take your smartphone or other smart device from your pocket—and click a couple of times. A signal is then sent to an electrode in your brain, activating dopamine-producing cells to trigger an extra dose,” explains Jenny Emnéus, professor at DTU Nanotech.
This is the vision of the international Marie Skoldowska Curie ITN project, which she will lead and coordinate over the next four years. If successful, the project may offer a breakthrough for forms of treatment that do not currently exist, thus revolutionizing the quality of life for the affected patients and their surroundings.
“Obviously, the project is still far from completion, but we have come a long way with many of the elements needed to make it succeed,” emphasizes Jenny Emnéus.
“We can 3D print the necessary cell structures and manufacture the optoelectronic fibres surrounding the dopamine-producing cells Our Swedish partner is supplying the optogenetic technique enabling us to send signals to certain gene codes in the cells using laser light—thus initiating dopamine production. While new neurotechnologies are in the pipeline, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome before we have a working solution,” explains Jenny Emnéus.
At the same time the project is a programme to train 15 new PhD students to develop and optimize the various elements that form part of the overall solution.