Cellular support network boosts the regeneration of injured nerves
After an injury, nerves often struggle to regrow completely, leaving patients with reduced mobility and sensation. In tests on rats, Irish researchers have now demonstrated a way to improve nerve repair using proteins from the supporting network around cells.
Peripheral nerves have some capacity for regeneration after an injury, but they often need help. For major damage, sections can be surgically replaced with nerves taken from other parts of the patient’s body, but that obviously creates injuries elsewhere. Implants called nerve guidance conduits (NGCs) are often used, which, as the name suggests, help direct nerves to regenerate along specific paths.
For the new study, researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland investigated a new way to improve NGCs. The team loaded the nerve guidance conduits with a finely tuned mix of proteins from the extracellular matrix (ECM), a scaffold structure that provides support and supplies nutrients for cells in the body. The idea was to mimic the body’s usual nerve repair processes to reduce the need for drugs or stem cells.
The researchers tested the new approach on rats with lacerations to their peripheral nerves. And sure enough, in the weeks following treatment, the rats showed higher rates of pro-repair inflammation, higher density of regenerating axons, and a strong increase in blood vessel density, which aids the healing tissue.
"In our lab-based trials, we discovered that at eight weeks post implantation our nerve guidance conduit had successfully improved the prognosis for nerve regeneration and repair over the current clinical gold standard,” said Alan Hibbitts and Zuzana Kočí, lead authors of the study. “Our conduit supported clear improvements in nerve repair and blood vessel formation and most importantly, we saw that we could scale this up to approach very large nerve defects in our pre-clinical studies."
Other studies have shown promise in regenerating nerves using nutrient-rich gels or electrical stimulation. The new work still has a long way to go before it might be trialed in humans, but it’s a promising advance nonetheless.
The research was published in the journal Matrix Biology.