Here’s something you might not have known: people with severe nerve damage can have their nerves replaced with donor cells, but to do so requires that patients spend a lifetime on harsh drugs to suppress the immune system that will attack the foreign ganglia. People who have been hurt in car accidents or by gunshot wounds are better off if doctors can find a way to allow the patient’s own cells to aid in repairing the gaps caused by such severe wounds.
But this, as you might have guessed, is not as easy as it sounds. Unlike skin cells that just grow outwardly naturally and will eventually repair themselves, nerve cells have to attach themselves in the correct patterns in order to fulfill the same role they had before the accident. It’s the difference between slapping a new quarter panel on the side of your car on one hand, and rewiring the car’s stereo system on the other. How do two ends of a ragged hole in your nervous system find each other again?
Doctor Jason Huang of the University of Rochester Medical Center treats patients here in Rochester at Highland Hospital and also treated soldiers in Iraq. His research, funded by the U of R and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, has led to the discovery that cells – called dorsal root ganglion or DRG cells – can play an important role in the bridging of those neuron gaps. More importantly, can do so while minimizing the undue attention of the immune system.
Doctor Huang’s research tested DRG cells’ effectiveness when compared with another type of neuron-repairing cell, the Schwann cell. A “bridge” of collagen is placed between the two ends of the damaged nerve, then paired with samples of one of the two test cells to test each cell type for effectiveness. The collagen bridge is already a technique being used by neurosurgeons, but the augmentation with neuron-regrowing cells is something new.
The game plan is to actually grow DRG cells in a lab using the patient’s own nerve cells as a base. They’ve discovered a means of stretching the cells (huh?) to encourage them to grow at a rate of an inch every three weeks. This means that, not only are the new neurons more likely to play ball with the body’s immune system, but replacing those cells may take only a few weeks rather than several months as with other treatments.
For more information on Dr. Huang’s research, see the article below: