According to a study published in the journal Biofabrication, engineers from the University of Sheffield have developed a new method called nerve guidance conduits (NGCs), which naturally helps repairing nerves that have been damaged by traumatic accidents. The new technique could also improve the chances of restoring movement and sensation in injured limbs.

The study entitled,”Two-photon polymerization-generated and micromolding-replicated 3-D scaffolds for peripheral neural tissue engineering applications”, was conducted in collaboration with Laser Zentrum Hannover, Germany.

Based on laser direct writing, the technique allows complex structures to be fabricated from computer files by using CAD/CAM, a computer aided design/manufacturing program. Using this method meant that the researchers were able to produce far more advanced NGC designs than before .

At present, the conventional procedure to treat individuals with severe traumatic nerve damage is to surgically suture or graft the nerve endings together. However, this type of surgery often does not result in complete recovery, and patients can be left with a devastating loss of sensation and/or movement in the affected limb.

John Haycock, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Sheffield explained:

“When nerves in the arms or legs are injured they have the ability to re-grow, unlike the spinal cord; however, they need assistance to do this.

We are designing scaffold implants that can bridge an injury site and provide a range of physical and chemical cues for stimulating this regrowth.”

The team designed the new conduit to guide damaged nerves to regrow through a number of small channels. NGCs are made from biodegradable synthetic polymer material based on polylactic acid.

Lead author, Dr. Frederik Claeyssens, of the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said:

“Nerves aren’t just like one long cable, they’re made up of lots of small cables, similar to how an electrical wire is constructed. Using our new technique we can make a conduit with individual strands so the nerve fibers can form a similar structure to an undamaged nerve.”

According to the researchers, the conduit biodegrades naturally once the nerve is completely regrown.

The researchers hope that NGCs will considerably increase recovery for a wide variety of peripheral nerve injuries. The team is currently working towards clinical trials after laboratory experiments showed that nerve cells added to the conduit grew naturally within its channelled structure.

Dr. Claeyssens said:

“If successful we anticipate these scaffolds will not just be applicable to peripheral nerve injury, but could also be developed for other types of nerve damage too. The technique of laser direct writing may ultimately allow production of scaffolds that could help in the treatment of spinal cord injury.

What’s exciting about this work is that not only have we designed a new method for making nerve guide scaffolds which support nerve growth, we’ve also developed a method of easily reproducing them through micro molding.

This technology could make a huge difference to patients suffering severe nerve damage.”

The study was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Written By Grace Rattue