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The University of Wollongong’s newly appointed Australian Laureate Fellow Professor Gordon Wallace has launched a new $4.7 million medical bionics research program to develop ways to regenerate damaged nerves and muscles and ground-breaking brain implants for epilepsy patients.
Professor Wallace leads the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at UOW’s Innovation Campus.
His team is already recognised as a world leader in the field of materials and bionics, by creating specialised three-dimensional structures made from ‘smart’ materials which are accepted by the human body and can enable regrowth of damaged nerves and muscles.
Professor Wallace’s team is working with senior clinicians at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital on the medical bionics project. The hospital’s Chair of Medicine, neurologist Professor Mark Cook, and Associate Professor Rob Kapsa attended the launch on Friday (27 April).
“In the last couple of decades a whole new area has been developed in organic materials that conduct electricity,” Professor Wallace said.
He said the pioneering research that developed cochlear ear implants to help people overcome hearing loss had sparked interest among clinicians, who had started looking for new applications for the electrodes.
He said the new research program will focus on building better organic materials to conduct electricity through the body, to “improve lines of communication” between electronics and biology to stimulate nerve, muscle and bone regeneration.
“Cochlear implants stimulated the imagination of researchers, and now the challenge is to make 3-D structures that can be a muscle regeneration platform to facilitate and stimulate re-growth,” he said. “We will also be developing the machinery to put these three-dimensional structures together.”
The epilepsy project with Professor Cook at St Vincent’s aims to develop nanostructured materials that can be implanted in the brains of epilepsy sufferers to monitor electrical signals. The device would pre-empt an epileptic seizure and then release medication to reduce or eliminate the effects of the seizure.
Professor Wallace said the research program was a multi-disciplinary, high collaboration effort. His team of researchers and PhD students will be working with other faculties at UOW and researchers at the University of Tasmania and Deakin and Monash Universities in Victoria, as well as the clinicians at St Vincent’s and researchers overseas.
“This is a rare alignment of the planets, where we have the funding (from the Laureate Fellowship) a cracking research team and cracking people involved (from partner organisations),” Professor Wallace said.
Professor Cook said St Vincent’s Melbourne greatly valued its strong relationship with Professor Wallace and his team. He paid tribute to the team’s ability to produce the 3-D bionic materials needed for their clinical research at short notice.
“The quick turnaround in getting these materials makes all the difference,” Professor Cook said. “We have a dynamic relationship with Gordon’s team. There is a lot of interaction during production, and we are up and down (between Melbourne and Wollongong) regularly. My team really enjoys coming to UOW.”
Professor Cook and St Vincent’s head of Surgery Professor Peter Choong, along with UOW’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Health) Professor Don Iverson form a high-level advisory group for the research.
Professor Iverson said medical bionics was one of three key themes in modern medical research.
“This work would have been considered almost science fiction 10 years ago, but when we look at it 10 years from now we will be astounded by what has been achieved. Over the next 10 years this centre will produce research that will resonate around the world,” Professor Iverson predicted.