Long, damaged nerves can be regrown with new polymer-protein technology

January 27, 2020

In the US, nerve damage affects more than 20 million people, including wounded soldiers and unfortunate civilians. Often, if a damaged nerve section is longer than a third of an inch, the nerve can’t regrow to its target and gets knotted into a painful ball called a neuroma – significantly compromising sensation and motor function. Recently, researchers have created a biodegradable nerve guide that can regenerate long sections of damaged nerves, without needing a donor nerve or transplanting stem cells.

Longer segments of damaged nerves are commonly treated by removing a skinny sensory nerve, usually at the back of the leg, then dicing and sewing the bundled pieces to the end of the damaged motor nerve. However, only about 40 to 60% of motor function in the affected limb typically returns.

Leading the research was Kacey Marra, Professor of plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania. Marra likens typical nerve transfers to pasta, “It’s like you’re replacing a piece of linguini with a bundle of angel hair pasta – it just doesn’t work.”

In an experiment with the new nerve guide, made of the same material as dissolvable sutures and peppered with a growth-promoting protein which releases slowly over the course of months, the transfer returned about 80% of fine motor control in the thumbs of four monkeys, each with a 2-inch nerve gap in the forearm. In a year, Marra’s guide successfully replenished Schwann cells and restored nerve conduction (Schwann cells are the insulating layer around nerves that boosts electrical signals and supports nerve regeneration).

Hoping to bring her revolutionary guide to market, Marra is presently working on approvals from the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) on a first-in-human clinical trial and a startup company that will produce workable off-the-shelf hollow tubes for nerve grafts.


Category: Features, Technology & Devices

Comments are closed.