Researchers in Ireland have announced a breakthrough for nerve repair treatments designed to mimic the body’s own healing process.
In a study, published in the journal Matrix Biology, they found a potential new approach to repairing peripheral nerve defects using extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins, which play an important role in tissue formation.
The study was conducted by researchers at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) and global medtech company Integra LifeSciences.
Their pre-clinical trial involved using ECM proteins to regenerate nerves without the need for stem cells or nerve grafting.
Peripheral nerve injury is a major clinical problem and researchers said it affects more than 5m people worldwide every year, leading to loss of motor or sensory function to muscles or skin. Current therapies to repair nerve damage involve transplanting healthy nerves of a patient to repair damage or implanting an artificial nerve guidance conduit.
Researchers used a new ECM-loaded nerve guidance conduit in the trial, which showed an improved recovery response at eight weeks following the repair of traumatic nerve lacerations with substantial loss of tissue. The research team said there was increased pro-repair inflammation, blood vessel density and regenerating nerve density compared to the current standard of care.
The study’s lead authors Dr Alan Hibbitts and Dr Zuzana Kočí said: “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.”
Principal investigator of the study, Prof Fergal O’Brien, said the goal was to create a device with improved outcomes that would “translate well” in regulatory assessments into the clinical setting.
“This provides a more direct route to market and therefore the potential for faster real-world impact in improving patient quality of life,” he added.
O’Brien said the project’s current goals are to relieve the current clinical reliance on grafted nerves and move into the next phase of pre-clinical trials. He added that the partnership with Integra has been “essential to this process” and the team is looking to advance “continued enhanced treatments for nerve damage and injury”.
Chief scientist at Integra, Dr Simon Archibald, said the company has been partnered with O’Brien’s team since 2005 on regenerative medicine research.
“We are enthusiastic for the future potential of this iterative innovation to address long-gap nerve repair, building on our current leading clinical materials for short-gap nerve repairs,” Archibald said.
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