Works in Combination with Natural Sugar Molecule
SAN FRANCISCO, March 29 — Robbing Peter to pay Paul may be an obsolete way to treat nerve damage, thanks to a new plastic, or polymer, that uses electric stimulation to help regrow peripheral nerves.
The findings were presented today at the 219th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, by Christine Schmidt, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.
Currently, the most effective way to repair a severely damaged nerve in the arm, leg or face is to remove a healthy, but less essential, nerve from another part of the body and graft it to the damaged area. Now, researchers are experimenting with a new approach: using a biomaterial made of an electricity-conducting polymer in combination with a naturally occurring sugar molecule.
“Polymers that can conduct electricity have a beneficial effect on the nerves,” explained Schmidt.
Peripheral nerve injuries — caused by auto accidents, gunshot wounds, lacerations, plastic surgery and nerve cancer — are even more common than spinal cord injuries, says Schmidt. Statistics don’t reveal how prevalent they are, however, because doctors often report them as part of an accompanying condition, such as cancer.
To stimulate nerve growth, the researchers synthesized a new biomaterial. It combines an electricity-conducting polymer with a sugar molecule present in blood vessels and in most tissues.
The researchers bridge the gap in the damaged nerve with a tube made of the new biomaterial. As the sugar breaks down inside the body, its by-products stimulate blood vessel growth, an important process in wound healing. Over a period of two to six weeks, the biomaterial breaks down as the nerve begins to grow. The nerve continues growing even after the plastic has degraded, reaching its muscle target weeks or months later.
Researchers have explored the use of synthetic materials to repair damaged nerves for the past decade or so, but Schmidt’s work is unique in that it employs an electricity-conducting polymer. Trials with small rodents are in various stages of completion and will be followed by large mammal trials.
Dr. Schmidt is Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Texas, Austin.
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