Using the brain on the bench

Arranging complex neural pathways

Electromaterials pioneer and NSW Scientist of the Year, Professor Gordon Wallace has discovered an innovative way to read your mind.

Imagine if neuroscientists could access an accurate 3D-printed model of your brain – complete with 3D-printed neurons derived from your own stem cells and arranged in complex neural pathways – so that they could better understand and intervene in neurological diseases. Though it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, Professor Gordon Wallace AO says this ‘Brain on the Bench’ technology is now possible.

“This project is really exciting because it highlights the fact that the convergence of advances in materials and in fabrication not only result in really interesting practical applications in the short-term, but in longer-term insights that we just couldn’t have imagined five years ago,” he explains.

“When we can print arrangements of neurons, particularly from a patient’s own stem cells, we start to get insights into the fundamental development of neural networks. For example, if you take cells from an epileptic or schizophrenic patient and reprogram them, you can compare how those neural networks develop in contrast to normal neural networks, and test pharmaceutical and electroceutical interventions ‘on the bench’.

“It empowers us to be creative in developing experimental approaches that will provide unprecedented insights into diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Prof Wallace is a celebrated pioneer and innovator in the field of electromaterials, specifically in the convergence of nanotechnology and advances in organic conductors and fabrication processes to deliver innovative systems for energy and health. His first major contribution to science was in challenging the convention that instability in polymer materials should be eliminated, asserting that it could instead be directed and controlled.

“I was fascinated by the then recent discovery of organic materials that conduct electricity. Others complained of instability, but in working with these materials we realised the root cause of that ‘instability’ was a sensitivity and responsiveness to changing environments, and that tuning that sensitivity to a particular change and to deliver a specific response could enhance performance.

“I think people thought we were a bit nuts at the time,” he laughs.

The field of biology offered promising opportunities for these intelligent polymers, and a chance encounter with Bionic Ear developer Professor Graeme Clark resulted in a collaboration in using these materials as electrodes in the device. This led to studies in nerve and muscle regeneration using new materials not amenable to conventional fabrication approaches, and Prof Wallace’s ground-breaking exploration into 3D printing as a biofabrication tool began.

The Brain on the Bench is just one of a wealth of game-changing research projects on Prof Wallace’s radar; among numerous others are the Biopen – an innovative tool that allows surgeons to 3D-print cells to regenerate cartilage during surgery – and the SwEatch, a wearable device for harvesting and analysing sweat for medical diagnostics. Earlier this year, the Biopen was successfully tested in sheep ahead of human clinical trials, while the SwEatch is currently being trialled across sports and medical applications with a likely commercial availability within the next two years.

Born in Belfast, Prof Wallace emigrated to Australia as a teenager. With an aptitude for physics, chemistry and mathematics and a deep love of the sciences, he gained an undergraduate honours degree and PhD in Chemistry at Deakin University, and was later awarded honorary doctorates in science by both Deakin and the Hanbat National University in Korea.

Joining UOW in 1985, Prof Wallace was made a full professor in 1990 at just 32 years of age. That same year, he founded UOW’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) for the development of intelligent materials and nanotechnology. Under his leadership, IPRI discovered that electrical impulses could control complex biomolecular interactions and developed controlled drug delivery devices based on organic conductors. He remains IPRI’s Director, and has grown its researcher and postgraduate staff from five to more than 100.

He is also Director of the Australian National Fabrication Facility and Executive Research Director of the UOW-led ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES), a federally-funded research institute uniting multidisciplinary collaborators across the globe to turn their advanced materials knowledge to developing next-generation smart devices that improve lives.

Prof Wallace’s reputation is built on an unparalleled contribution to this emerging field, and since 2001 he has garnered in excess of $80 million in research funding and produced more than 850 publications. He has received the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science and Innovation, supervised almost 100 PhD students to completion and mentored more than 50 research fellows. He also led the development of a MOOC (massive open online course) in 3D bioprinting on the platform and, together with collaborators, introduced UOW’s global masters’ program in biofabrication in partnership with leading European universities.

Regularly called upon to collaborate and share insights with researchers and industry internationally, at the time of writing Wallace had just returned from a whirlwind European research tour and was on his way to Melbourne, then back home before heading to Finland and the United Kingdom. For him, this opportunity to learn and share knowledge is what drives real advancement and innovation and brings extraordinary potential to light.

“Though some of these advances may have seemed impossible a few years ago, converging advances in some critical fields have made the impossible, possible,” he says. “This is something I’ll certainly continue to dedicate myself to until I hang up the lab coat.”