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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/L010259/1
Title: Harnessing clay nano-particles for stem-cell driven tissue regeneration
Principal Investigator: Dawson, Dr JI
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Odense University Hospital University of Nottingham Uppsala University
Department: Human Development and Health
Organisation: University of Southampton
Scheme: EPSRC Fellowship
Starts: 01 June 2014 Ends: 31 May 2019 Value (£): 1,049,043
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Biomaterials Tissue Engineering
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
15 Jan 2014 Eng Fellowship Interviews Jan 2014 Announced
13 Aug 2013 Engineering Prioritisation Meeting 13 August 2013 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Gels made from clay could provide an environment able to stimulate stem-cells due to their ability to bind biological molecules.

That molecules stick to clay has been known by scientists since the 1960s. Doctors observed that absorption into the blood stream of certain drugs was severely reduced when patients were also receiving clay-based antacid or anti-diarrhoeal treatments. This curious phenomenon was realized to be due to binding of the drugs by clay particles. This interaction is now routinely harnessed in the design of tablets to carefully control the release and action of a drug.

Dr Dawson now proposes to use this property of clay to create micro-environments that could stimulate stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues such as bone, skin, heart, spinal cord, liver, pancreas and cornea.

The rich electrostatic properties of nano (1 millionth of a millimetre) -scale clay particles which mediate these interactions could allow two hurdles facing the development of stem-cell based regenerative therapies to be overcome simultaneously.

The first challenge - to deliver and hold stem cells at the right location in the body - is met by the ability of clays to self-organise into gels via the electrostatic interactions of the particles with each other. Cells mixed with a low concentration (less than 4%) of clay particles can be injected into the body and held in the right place by the gel, eliminating, in many situations, the need for surgery.

Clay particles can also interact with large structural molecules (polymers) which are frequently used in the development of materials (or 'scaffolds'), designed to host stem cells. These interactions can greatly improve the strength of such structures and could be applied to preserve their stability at the site of injury until regeneration is complete.

While several gels and scaffold materials have been designed to deliver and hold stem cells at the site of regeneration, the ability of clay nanoparticles to overcome a second critical hurdle facing stem-cell therapy is what makes them especially exciting.

Essential to directing the activity of stem-cells is the carefully controlled provision of key biological signalling molecules. However, the open structures of conventional scaffolds or gels, while essential for the diffusion of nutrients to the cells, means their ability to hold the signalling molecules in the same location as the cells is limited. The ability of clay nano-particles to bind biological molecules presents a unique opportunity to create local environments at a site of injury or disease that can stimulate and control stem-cell driven repair.

Dr Dawson's early studies investigated the ability of clay gels to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels by incorporating a key molecular signal that stimulates this process, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). In a manner reminiscent of the observations made in the 60s, Dr Dawson and colleagues observed that adding a drop of clay gel to a solution containing VEGF caused, after a few hours, the disappearance of VEGF from the solution as it became bound to the gel. When placed in an experimental injury model, the gel-bound VEGF stimulated a cluster of new blood vessels to form.

These exciting results indicate the potential of clay nanoparticles to create tailor-made micro-environments to foster stem cell regeneration. Dr Dawson is developing this approach as a means of first exploring the biological signals necessary to successfully control stem cell behaviour for regeneration and then, using the same approach, to provide stem cells with these signals to stimulate regeneration in the body.

The project will seek to test this approach to regenerate bone lost to cancer or hip replacement failure. If successful the same technology may be applied to harness stem cells for the treatment of a whole host of different scenarios, from burn victims to those suffering with diabetes or Parkinson's.
Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Organisation Website: http://www.soton.ac.uk