Injury of the peripheral nerves, such as the nerves in your arms, is common and often results in a loss of function or sensation.  Although these nerves have the capacity to regenerate and reconnect, recovery is often limited to short distances and outcomes remain relatively poor.  

There are surgical procedures that have been developed but they are highly invasive and full functional recovery is not guaranteed.  That is why researchers at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at UCalgary conducted a study to explore a novel potential treatment for chronic nerve injury.  The purpose of the study was to restore the regnerative capacity of denervated distal nerve environment by infusing stem cells at the site of injury.

This research was recently accepted for publication in the journal Experimental Neurology.  Sarah Walsh, a doctoral student in the laboratory of  Rajiv Midha, MD MSc FRCSC, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Alberta and King Abdulaziz Hospital in Saudi Arabia, searched for a better way of using Schwann cells to enhance nerve regeneration.

Schwann cells release factors that stimulate nerve growth.  However, when a nerve is severely damaged, the Schwann cells in the area lose their ability to support regeneration.  One way to overcome this deficiency is to infuse Schwann cells from a healthy nerve into the area of damage but the drawbacks to this approach include nerve biopsies and the number of times replacement cells are required.

Therefore, Sarah cultured Skin-derived precursors or SKPs from the dermis of a rodent and reprogramed them to act as Schwann cells. She then delivered these reprogrammed cells into a nerve that had been chronically denervated for three months prior.

Ten weeks following treatment, SKP treated animals demonstrated superior axonal regeneration.  Moreover, these animals had improved function and less atrophy.

Sarah explains that this research is unique in that this is the first time a laboratory has attempted to rejuvenate distal nerves in a clinically relevant model of nerve injury.  Since SKPs can be taken with relative ease from a patient's own skin, they represent an easily accesible, (potentially autologous) source of adult stem cells for transplantation therapies following nerve injury.