Professor John Forsythe

Professor John Forsythe

Professor, Materials Science and Engineering
Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Rebuilding the brain

The study of the brain is among the most exciting frontiers in modern medical science. As neural tissue engineer Professor John Forsythe is discovering, the brain has potential not previously imagined, perhaps even the potential to regenerate. Within this rapidly developing field John is applying his knowledge of materials engineering, biomaterials and nanotechnology to help develop new therapies to regenerate damaged neural pathways in the brain. The work offers hope for potential new treatments of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.


  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Polymer Chemistry, University of Queensland (UQ).

Research Interests

John Forsythe’s research activities focuses on the synthesis and modification of novel biopolymers for use in neural tissue engineering and cell culture. In summary my research can be categorised as follows:

  • Scaffolds for brain and spinal cord repair
  • Nano-fibrous electrospun scaffolds
  • Interaction of stem cells on biopolymer substrates
  • Electrospinning
  • Light responsive hydrogels
  • Bioprinting

Neural Tissue Engineering

Tissue engineering initiatives have been directed at developing scaffolds that assist in the repair of damaged neural pathways. This research presents significant challenges as the scaffold must meet the following criteria:

  • Provide a suitable microenvironment for the neurons
  • Present appropriate physical and chemical cues (and in the correct order!) to direct neurites over significant distances
  • Both biodegradable and biocompatible.

Research has been directed at the interaction of neurons in 3-dimensional hydrogel systems as well as nano-fibrous electrospun assemblies. This has involved the immobilisation of proteins to promote directed neurite outgrowth as well as manipulation of spatial architectures of nano sized fibres (as shown below).

Neural stem cells cultured on a nanostructured biomaterial

Research Projects

Not started projects

Immunospheres: Creating an immune system in a microparticle

CRC for Polymers

Current projects

Immunospheres: creating an immune system in a microparticle

Delivering advanced electrode materials to the clinic

By stimulating and/or recording from nerves, medical bionics devices have had a dramatic impact on the quality of life for millions of people around the
world. While smooth platinum (Pt) is the current electrode material of choice for almost all bionics devices used clinically, it has a number of significant
disadvantages including mechanical properties not compatible with neural tissue and a limited safe charge injection capacity. The use of alternate electrode materials with greater charge injection capacity and a more compliant electrode interface would revolutionize the development of small, high density electrode arrays for safe, long-term selective neural recording and stimulation. Our proposal brings together a highly talented team of materials scientists, electrophysiologists and medical bionics researchers to develop and evaluate a new generation of electrode materials based on graphene and conductive hydrogels that are more mechanically compliant and exhibit increased safe charge injection capacity. Moreover, these coatings can incorporate bioactive molecules designed to reduce inflammation and increase neural survival. We aim to demonstrate the improvement this technology can bring to the field of medical bionics and demonstrate that the approach can be rapidly translated into clinical devices to transform patient outcomes by: investigating the chemical, mechanical, electrical and electrochemical stability of candidate electrode materials following accelerated in vitro testing; and evaluating the electrophysiological, histological, mechanical and electrical performance of these novel materials in acute in vitro and chronic in vivo studies. Because these materials can be directly coated onto Pt they can be readily incorporated into existing medical bionics devices. A key outcome of this proposal is to deliver these new electrode materials to the clinic.

Stem cell based strategies for re-establishing T cell immunity in aging and disease.

High Resolution Atomic Force Microscopy Facility for Bionanotechnology

The aim of this proposal is to establish a collaborative high resolution atomic force microscopy facility. Nanoscale surface structure and the complex structure/mechanical-functional relationships underpin many biological processes and the next major developments in both scientific knowledge and therapeutic and other biotechnological applications of this knowledge can only emerge from understanding cell systems at the molecular level. The new facility aims to create opportunities for cutting edge research into protein structure and function and advanced materials and nanostructures suitable for use in the next generation of therapeutics and devices.

New generation microfluidic devices using light responsive hydrogels

This project aims to develop a totally new way of fabricating microfluidic devices using light degradable hydrogels as its core element. This approach will allow researchers to rapidly construct and modify microfluidic devices
within their own laboratories, without the need for specialised clean rooms or expensive equipment. The versatility of the microfluidic device will be demonstrated by the manufacture of mature T cells, which continues to be a
major challenge in stem cell science and which could have fundamental biological and commercial significance.

Past projects

Surface modifications prevent driveline infection

Future neural electrodes: probing the electrical activity of nerves using 3D graphene networks

This research aims to develop a totally new type of neural electrode that will for the first time, allow reliable and long-term stimulation and recording. Our approach incorporates graphene based biomaterials with tunable electrical and biological properties within supportive 3-dimensional cellular microenvironments, greatly enhancing the electrical interactions between cells and the electrode. The electrical properties of nerve cells will be probed using our 3D graphene network, providing insight into the the brain-machine interface. This project is important as it directly addresses the inherent limitations of current electrode designs.

Light responsive polymers to control cell function

Neural Tissue Engineering Scaffolds

Switching the light on cartilage repair

This proposal aims to develop a totally new type of matrix, which is hierarchical and tuneable, that will assist stem cell treatments for cartilage repair. Our approach incorporates a hydrogel that can be induced to degrade using near infrared light, allowing ‘on-demand’ delivery of cytokines and even cells at the site of cartilage defects. The biocompatible matrix can be delivered via a minimally invasive injection, and also contains nanofibres that mimic the physical and chemical characteristics of native cartilage. The technology developed in this proposal will help our Australian consortium to maintain its competitive edge in the global economy.

Research in bionic vision science and technology initiative. Direct stimulation of the visual cortex: a flexible strategy for restoring high-acuity pattern vision

The project will provide vision to sufferers of the three leading causes of blindness in Australia: Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), Glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy (DR), constituting 85% of all blindness. All three cannot be solved using retinal implants, so we will use intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) of the visual cortex, which bypasses the retina and optic nerve, allowing treatment of all visual impairments except the 7% that affect the brain directly. the project brings together a team of experts covering materials science, physiology, vision, electronic processing and neurosurgery. Their goal is human trial, then a commerical prototype with four years.

UV Lamp Omnicure S2000

Facility for innovation in structural biomaterials engineering

The fabrication of smart biomaterials requires a thorough understanding of the intricate interactions at the interface with the biological system. This proposal aims to provide state-of-the-art, high speed microfabrication and characterisation instrumentation specifically targeted at the development of biomaterial structures. The facility will provide a platform for cross-disciplinary teams to undertake a broad range of research programs with applications in tissue engineering, diagnostic devices, drug delivery, stem cell technologies and biological corrosion. The facility will help attract leading researchers to Australia and enhance the national competitiveness on a global stage.

Polymer-Based Microenvironments for the Control of Cellular Responses

Confronting the Challenges in Modern Spectroscopy of Polymers

Polymers and nanocomposites are increasingly being used in new, high value applications as diverse as medicine, structural engineering, optics and electronics. In order to control and understand polymer performance, a detailed knowledge of the chemical structure at all stages in their lifecycle is required – in the liquid, rubber and solid states and during degradation. This application seeks to establish a coordinated Polymer Spectroscopy Network using new forms of infrared and NMR spectroscopy to probe samples (usually of an non-planar geometry) in a range of configurations. These will be used simultaneously with other techniques such as rheology or thermogravimetry, and will produce capabilities unique in Australia.

Polymer Characterisation Facility (PCF)

The proposed facility will include state-of-the-art equipment enabling the execution of cutting-edge research by internationally renowned researchers at the UMelb, MU and CSIRO. Such research will facilitate the development of advanced materials for a diverse range of applications, including polymer therapeutics, tissue engineering, coatings, optical devices and fuild modifiers. The facility will enable Australian scientists to maintain their position at the forefront of advancing macromolecular, nano- and bio-technology and advanced material sciences. The multi-user facility will enable inter-disciplinary collaboration with researchers in academia and industry, and will be vital in training the next generation of Australian scientists.

Nerve regeneration using light responsive hydrogels and stem cells

This proposal aims to develop a new light responsive biomaterial that will help develop stem cell strategies for nerve repair in the brain. Using the unique properties of light, the stem cell microenvironment will be rapidly adapted, in real time and with spatial control, to identify important developmental stages of nerve repair. Our approach of using intelligent nanostructured materials in combination with stem cell technologies will provide a powerful platform for nerve regeneration but will also be of considerable benefit to other areas of biological engineering.

Injectable scaffolds for treatments of neurological disorders

Cell replacement therapies offer potentially effective treatments for a host of neurological disorders but a major obstacle confronting their development is to ensure appropriate connections are formed within the brain. This proposal aims to utilize injectable biodegradable polymers, to demonstrate the feasibility of assisting neural cells and stem cells to bridge glial scars or significant distances in the brain and repair damaged neural pathways. This proposal will focus on naturally occurring polysaccharides, which will act as “scaffolds” for the growing neurones. The role the scaffolds play in regulating neurite extension will be investigated in vitro and in vivo.

CRC Polymers

The polymer pharmaceutical/drug charactrization and processing facililty

Polymers are extensively used in medicine, pharmarcy and the biomaterials industry in applications ranging from slow release hydrogels, polymer scaffolds, biodegradable prostheses, implants and drug encapsulation devices. The processing of polymers into the appropriate forms is critical to their use. Of equal importance is the ability to monitor in real time the release of drugs. In this application, a group of collaborating researchers request support for the acquisition of equipment which can be used to process polymers, to characterize their final structures and ultimately the kinetics of drug release. Outcomes will include an improved understanding of the manufacture of drug-delivery formulations and biomaterials.

Manipulating nano-fibres to control nerve regeneration

Neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and brain injury result in the depletion of nerve cells as well as their associated tracts or pathways. Effective repair of the brain will not only require nerve cell replacement but reconstitution of these tracts. This proposal will work towards novel approaches to reconstitute these pathways (tracts) by constructing permissive scaffold environments for neurite extension. In specific terms, the proposal will build upon preliminary research, to obtain an understanding of the enhanced contact guidance behaviour of neurites in contact with novel nano-structured fibres, in vitro.

Reactive Extrusion of Crosslinkable Expoxy Thermoplastics

Using nanostructured biomaterials and stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries

This proposal aims to use advanced nanostructured materials and stem cells in an innovative approach to treat spinal cord injuries. Functional nanofibres will be manufactured and will provide optimised microenvironments for controlled stem cell differentiation as well as axonal extension, actively assisting the body to repair the spinal cord following trauma. Our approach will be developed and assessed in the dish and in vivo, providing a powerful platform for the future study of nerve regeneration.

International travel for the Australian National Beamline Facility, Photon Factory, Japan

Access to the Australian National Beamline Facility, Photon Factory, Japan

Synthesis and Performance of Novel Polymer Resist for 193nm Immersion Lithography

This project aims to develop novel polymers for immersion lithography. The trillion dollar semiconductor industry relies on continual increases in the density of transistors on integrated circuits. Achieving this depends on smaller featuire sizes during the lithographic process, by improvement in optics and by moving to lower wavelength photons. in the past 12 months, the industry has embarked upon a shift in technology to immersion lithography. Essential elements of this technology are increased refractive indices of the polymer resist and a clear understand of the interactions of the resists with immersion fluids. Futureexploitation of immersion lithography will rely on the novel high RI polymers developed in this project.

Research articles, papers & publications

See John’s research contributions through published book chapters, articles, journal papers and in the media.

Last modified: 28/04/2020