Published on 28/09/2022
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Aston University research to grow neuronal networks for new drug testing receives grant award
  • Aston University research project is one of 77 projects to be funded through UK Research and Innovation New Horizons initiative
  • Stem cell-derived neurons will be grown on tiny scaffolds to create neuronal network
  • The neuronal networks will be used for testing efficacy of new drugs to treat neurological conditions. 

Research at Aston University aimed at developing technology to help find better treatments for conditions such as depression, dementia and epilepsy is among 77 adventurous projects being supported with a £15 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through the New Horizons initiative.

An estimated 11 million people in the UK live with neurological conditions such as depression, dementia or epilepsy. While there is an ever-growing need for new drug treatments and therapies, advances are hampered by a lack of suitable methods to test and screen new approaches, such as using animal tissues where human brain cells may respond differently. 

The project ‘Scaff-Net’, led by Professor Rhein Parri together with Professor Edik Rafailov and Dr Eric Hill at Aston University, aims to overcome this by growing neurons from human-derived stem cells which can then be grown on tiny scaffolds and develop into neuronal networks. By printing these scaffolds and networks onto small electrodes, the team aims to be able to test the efficacy of new drugs on systems similar to the human brain, making the process much quicker and greatly speeding up the discovery of new drugs.

Each of the 77 funded projects focus on high risk, speculative engineering or information and communication technologies research with a potentially transformative impact.

The investment builds on the more than 100 transformative New Horizons projects funded by EPSRC in 2020. 
As well as supporting adventurous blue-sky research, New Horizons is a ground-breaking programme which has trialled a streamlined application process to reduce bureaucracy and deliver a faster process compared to current standard funding routes.

EPSRC will now conduct further evaluation on the first two rounds of New Horizons and make an announcement on a further round in due course.

Rhein Parri, professor in pharmacology at Aston University, said: 
“We are very excited to have won support through New Horizons for this ambitious project. 

“The ability to turn human stem cells into brain cells has revolutionised the study of the human brain.  Our team will work together to develop new technologies that will provide insight into the activity of human neuronal networks that we expect to provide great future benefits for science and society.”

EPSRC executive chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said: 
“The adventurous thinking displayed in these new projects underlines the ingenuity and imagination of our research base, taking novel approaches to tackle major challenges.

“The discovery-led science we support is at the heart of the research and innovation ecosystem. 

“Engineering and physical sciences underpins and advances research across all disciplines, catalysing the breakthroughs and technologies that deliver benefits and prosperity for all of society.”

Notes to editors

Notes to Editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiary groups – students, business and the professions, and the West Midlands region and wider society. Located in Birmingham at the heart of a vibrant city, the campus houses all the University’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Aleks Subic is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University is ranked  22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2023, based on measures including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects. The Aston Business School MBA programme was ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Rebecca Hume, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44)7557 745416 or email:

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