Feature: New nerve regeneration processes in the pipeline?

29 February 2012

Nerve damage more often than not leaves a part of a person's body incapable of activity, with the injury rehabilitation process usually a long one and sometimes not guaranteed to enable individuals to recover entirely.

However, neurosurgeon Jason Huang is working with his colleagues to try and find a way of repairing nerves with more effectiveness and efficiency than what can currently be achieved.

The medical expert has tended to many people who have suffered horrific injuries as a result of car crashes or being caught up in an explosion while on the battlefield.

Looking into his line of work, Mr Huang admitted that severe nerve damage is one of the most challenging injuries which he has to treat.

"These are very serious injuries, and patients really suffer, many for a very long time … there are a variety of options, but none of them is ideal," he explained.

Mr Huang is hoping to alter this perception though, especially since he and a team at the University of Rochester Medical Center have learnt that a high number of cells in the body may be able to hold the key to establishing new forms of nerve transplants.

Already, the researchers have established that dorsal root ganglion neurons in rats have proved a pivotal part of the process of creating thick, healthy nerves, with such a development causing no unwanted attention from the animal's immune system.

With this breakthrough recorded, Mr Huang detailed: "Our long-term goal is to grow living nerves in the laboratory, then transplant them into patients and cut down the amount of time it takes for those nerves to work."

In order to push these experiments further so that they may perhaps benefit human beings, the University of Rochester researchers have received funding for their project from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the institute's Medical Center itself. 

For the time being, nerve regeneration falls into four categories - stem cell therapy, guidance channels, neurotrophic factors and gene therapy.

A variety of studies have been carried out to advance the medical procedure further though, especially since nerves can be damaged and bodies dramatically affected by something which seems minor at first, such as typing or suffering an awkward fall.

However, the long-term consequences stem from the fact that the central nervous system in which the body's nerves are located only has a limited ability to repair itself.

In fact, when this part of the body is critically injured there is no way for new neurons to naturally grow to replace the damaged parts, while new axons of previously severed neurons are unable to regenerate either.

Mr Huang was keen to point out though that in the estimation of his study team, "DRG cells could be a rich resource for nerve regeneration" and thus establish a breakthrough in this form of injury rehabilitation.

The University of Rochester is not the only facility which has closely examined nerve regeneration processes in February, however.

Earlier in the month, a new procedure was shown off by Professor George Bittner and his colleagues at the University of Texas' Austin Center for Neuroscience.

The strategy functions on the timely application of common chemicals to the severed nerve ends and could enable patients to recover from nerve damage in a matter of days or weeks in the years to come.

Displaying the procedure on a group of rats which had experienced nerve damage, the results showed that a large proportion of the animals were able to move the limb where the injury was suffered almost immediately after the surgery.

Furthermore, partial recovery of the injured limb was recorded just days after the procedure was carried out, with between 80 and 90 per cent of the limb's pre-injury function restored no longer than four weeks afterwards.

On top of all of this, the experiment was found to be both simple and inexpensive to implement, with teams at Harvard Medical School and Vanderbilt Medical School and Hospitals now working on studies to establish whether the procedure can soon be trialled on the human body.

Posted by Philip Briggs

Huang, Jason et al. 'Nerve Regeneration For The Future'. PLoS One. Wednesday February 22nd 2012.

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