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Will Graphene fulfil its potential in healthcare?

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Graphene is considered to be the first ever two-dimensional material. Thinner than paper and stronger than diamond, the material is being applied to a wide range of industries, including the healthcare sector.

Graphene is only one atom thick and due to its high mobility, conductivity and mechanical strength, it has attracted a huge amount of interest from life science researchers.

Graphene-based medical devices are being developed for a range of purposes, including, wearables that can optimise athletes’ performance, smart plasters that can track wound healing, implants for recording brain activity and even devices that could provide artificial retinal vision.

Graphene technology was discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004, when Professor Sir Andre Geim and Professor Sir Kostya Novoselov discovered and isolated a single atomic layer of carbon for the first time. The pair received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 in recognition of the breakthrough.

The EU-funded Graphene Flagship is a $1 billion research initiative that aims to accelerate the development of graphene projects and bring the new technology to the market.

A spin-off from the Graphene Flagship is INBRAIN Neuroelectronic. The Spanish company is developing graphene-based implants to improve and personalise the treatment of brain disorders, including Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

The devices are built around a graphene electrode which decodes neural signals from the brain and produce a therapeutic response which can be adapted to the clinical condition and the individual patient.

The company says the treatment is minimally invasive and uses artificial intelligence and big data to modulate brain activity, detect biomarkers and trigger adaptive responses.

INBRAIN CEO, Carolina Aguilar, said: “Our brain interfaces have bi-directional high-density graphene dots, in comparison with the current commercial leads which have only 4-8 metal contacts.

“All of these graphene dots are collecting real-time, high-resolution brain signals and identifying relevant biomarkers that we can link to symptoms and generate a therapeutic solution.

This process can be done with machine learning, which are able to generate algorithms that will eventually make the process of neuroelectric therapy automatic.

“By collecting securitized and anonymized data from different brain readings we can generate better and smarter algorithms.”

Earlier this year, the company received a further €1 million funding and is aiming to embark on its first human studies in 2021.

Aguilar added: “Our recent funding is being used to properly set up the company, the core technology and talent architecture, and to ensure the safety and success of our first human trials. Bigger rounds are expected soon as we successfully advance in this preliminary phase.”

In a similar vein, the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) last year developed a graphene-based brain implant that can detect electrical brain activity at an extremely low frequency.

Brain activity at frequencies below a tenth of a hertz was previously undetectable but carries critical information about the onset and progression of epilepsy and stroke.

The technology has now been adapted for brain recording and could change the way neurologists visualise brain activity.

Another team of scientists at the Graphene Flagship are working on retinal implants to provide artificial vision to patients with retinal degeneration.

They have developed electrodes that mimic the way stimulation works in natural photoreceptors: images are captured by an external camera and sent wirelessly to the graphene-enabled electrodes, which transform these signals into electrical impulses that can travel into the brain.

The research group has recently been awarded a €1 million grant to develop prototypes and will soon be setting out on a three-year project to design retinal prostheses using graphene.

Working in the realm of biomedical imaging and diagnostics is Cambridge Raman Imaging Ltd. The UK-based company is developing graphene-based ultrafast laser devices for the diagnosis and tracking of tumour growth in cancer patients.

The devices will be used in a new kind of microscope that uses a type of spectroscopy to generate digital images of tissue samples in real-time.

The company says the technology has the potential to differentiate between healthy and diseased tissue, show the extent of tumours and measure their response to drug treatment and possibly allow surgeons to verify whether a cancer has been completely removed after operation.

In the field of wound care, a company called Grapheal is developing a novel wearable patch that can remotely monitor chronic wounds.

A graphene-based biosensor is used to continuously record and store biometric wound data, which is communicated to a cloud system through the user’s smartphone.

The purpose of the patch is to allow clinicians to remotely monitor wound healing in their patients, receiving alerts if medical complications such as an infection arise.

Also working in the area of graphene-based wearables is CHEMsens, an initiative that is developing a plaster sensor for detecting biological data on human skin. The technology is designed for athletes to manage stress levels and avoid overstraining their bodies.

Using graphene, the device is able to detect and analyse biological constants, such as sodium, potassium, lactic acid and glucose levels in sweat. This data is then used to measure biophysical stress. This builds on the current consumer health wearables which are limited to physical parameters such as the heart pulse, oxygen content etc.

Science writer and communications director at Graphene Flagship said: “The future is bright for graphene in healthcare, and the Graphene Flagship looks forward to seeing the first fruits of these promising initiatives come forth over the decade ahead.”

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