Repairing nerve damage is incredibly difficult. Basically, there are two ways now – nerve grafting, which, again, heals really slowly, or stem cell therapy, which takes a lot of time. But now scientists from UCL are developing a third method, which promises off the shelf living artificial nerve tissue. This material would be used to bridge between two severed nerve ends in peripheral nerve damage.
Nerve damage is a huge problem. It causes loss of sensation, movement and sometimes results in chronic pain. Scientists used their artificial nerve tissue to successfully repair damaged nerves of a mouse, returning lost motor and sensory function. This is a huge step in the field where there are no engineered cellular therapies to treat nerve damage. If there is a larger gap between severed nerves grafting is pretty much the standard procedure, resulting in additional damage. It can retrieve motor function and sensitivity, but grafting nerve tissue from another part of the body is also quite damaging.
This new artificial nerve tissue is made from neural human stem cells and a collagen hydrogel sheet. This tissue is simply rolled in tubes and used to bridge these gaps. It can be used in any part of the body and initial experiments proved to be promising. Scientists used empty collagen tubes, an autologous nerve graft and their artificial nerve tissue to treat nerve damage in mice. While collagen tubes were used only as a control, they really didn’t do anything. The results from nerve graft implant and artificial nerve tissue proved to be comparable in terms of returning sensory and motor functions. While it was only some experiments with animal models, the method seems to be very effective.
The best part about it is that the tissue is easy to manufacture and could be made readily available for such nerve repair jobs. Now scientists are looking into what still needs to be done to move onto in-human testing. Professor Martin Birchall, one of the scientists in this study, said: “Many patients undergoing nerve repair for trauma or after cancer surgery are not fully served by conventional repairs which may lead to slow and inaccurate regrowth. The development of a targeted, stem-cell based repair product, available to all surgeons, especially in the emergency setting, would represent a massive breakthrough in care”.
Peripheral nerve damage often affects young people. Its effects last for a lifetime and are really difficult to repair. If scientists are successful in several years we might have some really good off the shelf methods to quickly and effectively repair severed nerves.