Stem cells from a patient’s fat may be used to create new nerves that can repair severed peripheral nerves (nerves outside the spinal cord), say scientists from Manchester University, England. The researchers say this route for creating new nerves could be part of medical practice by the year 2011.

The scientists said their aim is to put the new nerve tissue inside a biodegradable plastic tube, insert in at the broken ends of the severed nerve, and rejoin them in a human. This procedure could help a considerable number of people. They say they have had promising results with rats.

You can read about this study in Experimental Neurology.

Current medicine offers very limited procedures to help restore peripheral nerves. Nerves from elsewhere can sometimes be used- however, the risk of additional damage is significant, and even when there are results they hardly ever restore perfect function, say the authors.

The team managed to extract stem cells from the fat tissue of rats, and tweaked them to become neurons in the lab. Their aim now is to do the same, but with stem cells that come from human fat. They plan to create a replacement nerve, place it in a biodegradable sheath, and attach it to the severed part of the nerve. The result would be that the severed nerve would be joined again.

If successful, this technique could be used in any part of the body.

“The differentiated stem cells have great potential for future clinical use, initially for treatment of patients with traumatic injuries of nerves in the arms and legs,” said Dr Paul Kingham, team leader. As a study to find out how effective the biodegradable tube is is now being carried out, Kingham believes we could be about four years away from an effective treatment for severed peripheral nerves.

Severed nerves can be caused by an accident, as well as surgery – a surgeon in his/her attempt to remove a large tumor may have to cut and damage nerves in order to do so.

In the UK about 1 in every 1,000 people suffers from peripheral nerve injury – a total of about 50,000 people in the UK and 300,000 people in the USA.

“Adipose-derived stem cells differentiate into a Schwann cell phenotype and promote neurite outgrowth in vitro”
Paul J. Kingham , Daniel F. Kalbermatten, Daljeet Mahay, Stephanie J. Armstrong, Mikael Wiberg and Giorgio Terengh
Experimental Neurology – doi:10.1016/j.expneurol.2007.06.029
Click here to view abstract online

Written by: Christian Nordqvist