Waterford-based researchers have been awarded €4.4m in EU funding to develop a ‘living brain implant’ that can sense and treat impending epilepsy seizures.
The PRIME (Personalised Living Cell Synthetic Computing Circuit for Sensing and Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders) project, based at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), are developing technology that could suppress chronic and recurring seizures.
This would allow people with epilepsy to perform jobs that some are currently restricted from doing, such as operating machinery, driving a car, or working near open water or at heights.
Unlike previous implanted devices to treat neurological diseases, which offered ways to interrupt seizures in drug-resistant epilepsy patients only after they began, researchers say this pioneering treatment holds the potential to transform the lives of people with epilepsy “to the point where they won’t even be aware that they were in danger of having a seizure.”
The team at WIT’s Technology’s Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) will collaborate with six other partners, including FutureNeuro, the SFI Research Centre for chronic and rare neurological disease hosted at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) University of Medicine and Health Sciences.
During the four-year project, the research team will capitalise on a significant breakthrough discovery by FutureNeuro collaborators Professor Jochen Prehn and Professor David Henshall, who discovered that increases in transfer RNA (tRNA) fragments – a type of molecule found in the blood of epilepsy sufferers – precede seizure onset in some patients.
By understanding the role of tRNA in predicting seizure onset, the multidisciplinary team will aim to develop a biological brain implant that will detect spikes in tRNA and then respond with a seizure-suppressing treatment.
Prof David Henshall, Director of FutureNeuro and Professor of Molecular Physiology and Neuroscience at the RCSI, said the PRIME project represents the “very best of FutureNeuro research” taking a discovery in patients and working with world-leading multi-disciplinary teams in Ireland and abroad to develop what could be “a transformative new technology to provide better seizures control.”
The project was awarded funding of €4.4m under the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme, making it the first ever FET programme project awarded to an Irish Institute of Technology.
Dr Sasitharan Balasubramaniam said the project has the potential to treat other neurological disorders too.
Winning this funding is a significant result for TSSG and will allow the PRIME research team, which is made up of Dr. Sasitharan Balasubramaniam, Dr. Deirdre Kilbane, Frances Cleary and Dr. Hamdan Awan, along with consortium members, to build on their expertise in molecular communications and computing by applying it to future generation bio-implantables.
Dr. Sasitharan Balasubramaniam, Director of Research in TSSG, FutureNeuro investigator and PRIME project co-ordinator said the initial focus of the research team will be the detection and treatment of epilepsy, “though the project does offer the potential to also treat other neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s Disease and also certain types of cancer, going forward.”