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Researchers Spin Sweet Results for Damaged Nerves


Fluorescent-dyed samples show nerve-insulating cells (left) growing on a tubule, and a combination of cells and neurons aligned lengthwise along the tubes (right).
In a process similar to making cotton candy, Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) researchers may have found a way to regenerate severed nerves. The inexpensive technique involves spinning sugar fibers to make synthetic tubes that serve as a bridge between the ends of damaged nerves.

The method could be another option for patients who would otherwise face traditional surgery that involves taking a healthy nerve, or autograft, from elsewhere in the body. Of the 800,000 annual peripheral nerve injuries reported in the United States, about 50,000 require surgery, according to Purdue. The researchers are working on creating scaffolds as an alternative to autografts, because the process of removing a donor nerve can lead to a loss of feeling or function at the donor site.

Riyi Shi, an associate professor at the university's Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and Department of Basic Medical Sciences, said in a Purdue release that the team used an inexpensive polymer and the same kind of sugar found in candy to make samples of the scaffolds for just a few dollars. “It is a unique idea, and the simplicity and efficiency of this technology distinguish it from other approaches for nerve repair.”

An artificially colored scanning electron microscope image (left) shows sugar strands in yellow and the polymer coating in blue. On the right is a side view of the tubes and pores that can supply nutrients and remove waste from growing nerve cells. Photos courtesy of PURDUE UNIVERSITY
This novel scaffold is similar in structure to the assembly of nerves and is composed of thousands of bundled tubes that house the nerve cell's conducting elements. The researchers begin by melting sucrose from which they spin the sugar fibers. Once the poly L-lactic acid-coated filaments dissolve, they're left with hollow polymer tubes like the ones found in nerves.

Nerve-insulating cells grow both inside and around the outside of the tubes and align lengthwise along the tubes. The scaffolds regenerate the axon, a part of the nerve cell that attaches to the cell body and transmits signals.

Purdue biomedical engineering doctoral student Jianming Li says the scaffold's growth over an increased area could mean that the regeneration process is accelerated after an accident. This is crucial because rapid regeneration could prevent the atrophy of muscles and organs connected to damaged or severed nerves.

The researchers are first focusing their efforts on the peripheral nerves in the limbs and the rest of the body. Their method could potentially have use in repairing blood vessels damaged by disease or trauma as well. During their work, which was conducted at Purdue's Center for Paralysis Research, they also found that the polymers have pores that can be used to deliver nutrients and remove waste products from the growing nerve cells.

This research project has been featured in the journal Langmuir. Similar research findings from Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) can be found in the journal Soft Matter.

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