Biomaterials for Nerve Repair Therapies
Damage to spinal cord and peripheral nerve tissue can have a devastating impact on the quality of life for individuals suffering from nerve injuries. Our research is focused on analyzing and designing biomaterials that can interface with neurons and specifically stimulate and guide nerves to regenerate. These biomaterials might be required for facial and hand reconstruction or in trauma cases, and potentially could be used to aid the regeneration of damaged spinal cord.
Our research has focused on both top down and bottom up approaches to studying nerve regeneration and designing therapies ultimately for use in the clinic. In the top down approach, we have worked with modified nerve tissue to make it off-the-shelf accessible for nerve repair. To do this, our group has developed natural tissue scaffolds termed "acellular tissue grafts" created by chemical processing of normal intact nerve tissue. These grafts are created from natural biological tissue -- human cadaver nerves -- and are chemically processed so that they do not cause an immune response and are therefore not rejected in patients. These grafts have been optimized to maintain the natural intricate architecture of the nerve pathways, and thus, they are ideal for promoting the re-growth of damaged axons across lesions. These engineered, biological nerve grafts are currently used in the clinic for peripheral nerve injuries and are being explored in intact and injectable formulations for spinal cord regeneration.
In a parallel, bottom up approach, we have been developing biomaterials that have structure and chemical features that mimic nerve tissue. In particular, our research has focused on developing advanced hyaluronan-based scaffolds. Hyaluronic acid (HA; also known as hyaluronan) is a high molecular weight glycosaminoglycan found in all mammals and is a major component of the extracellular matrix in the nervous system. HA has been shown to play a significant role during embryonic development, extracellular matrix homeostasis, and, most importantly for our purposes, in wound healing and tissue regeneration. HA is a versatile biomaterial that has been used in a number of applications including tissue engineering scaffolds, clinical therapies, and drug delivery devices. Our group has devised novel techniques to process this material into forms that can be used in therapeutic applications. For example, we are using magnetic microparticles that can be aligned and then dissolved to leave micron-scale channels inside hydrogels. We have found that these materials facilitate neuron interactions and are thus highly promising for regenerating nerves in vivo.
Christine E. Schmidt is the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Endowed Chair and Department Chair of the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida. Dr. Schmidt received her B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988 and her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995 (with D. Lauffenburger). She conducted postdoctoral research at MIT (with R. Langer) as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, joining the University of Texas at Austin Chemical Engineering faculty in 1996. She was one of the founding faculty members of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT Austin, and was at UT Austin until December 2012, when she moved to become the Chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida.
Dr. Schmidt is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), and a Fellow of Biomaterials Science and Engineering (FBSE) of the International Union of Societies of Biomaterials Science and Engineering. She is currently the President-Elect for AIMBE. She has also served previously as the Chair for the College of Fellows for AIMBE, as a member of the Board of Directors for BMES, and as the Conference Chair for the BMES annual meeting in 2010. She served as the inaugural Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Materials Chemistry B from 2012 until 2016. She currently serves as the Neural Engineering Section Editor for Current Opinion in Biomedical Engineering and also currently serves on the Advisory/Editorial Boards for Journal of Materials Chemistry B, Materials Horizons, Acta Biomaterialia, Journal of Biomedical Materials Research, Journal of Biomaterials Science, Polymer Edition, and Nanomedicine. She has received numerous research, teaching, and advising awards, including the American Competitiveness and Innovation (ACI) Fellowship from NSF's Division of Materials Research, the Chairmen's Distinguished Life Sciences Award by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Women's Initiatives Committee's (WIC) Mentorship Excellence Award from AIChE, the Cockrell School of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus Award from The University of Texas at Austin, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and a Whitaker Young Investigator Award.
Dr. Schmidt's research is focused on developing new biomaterials and biomaterial composites (e.g., natural material scaffolds, processed tissues, electronic polymer composites) that can be used to physically guide and stimulate regenerating nerves and the healing of other tissues. Dr. Schmidt is active in commercialization efforts. Her research on development of decellularized nerve tissue has been licensed and utilized in AxoGen Inc.’s Avance® nerve graft, which has impacted many thousands of patients who suffer from peripheral nerve injuries. Her research is also the foundation for the start-up company, Alafair Biosciences, in Austin Texas that focuses on internal wound care management. Dr. Schmidt has additional patents licensed to companies such as Smith and Nephew and Siluria Technologies, Inc., and many additional invention disclosures and pending patents.