Damaged nerves could be repaired with fat cells

Peripheral nerve damage could be fixed by creating artificial nerves from fat cells, claim UK scientists.

In a study in rats, the researchers were able to create Schwann cells - neuroglial cells of the peripheral nervous system - from adipose-derived stem cells.

Currently peripheral nerve injuries are treated with nerve grafts or surgical repair, but functional recovery is poor in around 95 per cent of patients, according to the researchers.

Schwann cells can improve the regeneration of peripheral nerves, but at present the only way to collect them is by nerve biopsy, which is complicated and painful.

Using liposuction to extract sub-cutaneous adipose from a patient, before extracting stem cells to differentiate into Schwann cells, could solve the problem.

For the research, visceral fat was taken from rats and the stem cells extracted.

The researchers isolated cells expressing stem cell markers and neural progenitor protein nestin to increase the chance of generating Schwann cells.These were treated with glial growth factors and took on the appearance of Schwann cells.

Further investigation with molecular techniques showed glial cell markers were expressed in the artificial cells.

When the artificial Schwann cells were cultured with motor-neuron-like cells, scientists saw a proliferation of neurites and longer neurites on the motor neuron cells.

The researchers are preparing to test the technique on human adipose cells. Ultimately, they envisage creating 'artificial nerves', placing biodegradable polymer tubes between two ends of a cut nerve to allow a new artificial nerve connection to grow.

Professor Giorgio Terenghi, director of the UK centre for tissue regeneration in Manchester, said: 'If everything goes well, in the next five or six years we'll have a clinical trial.'

rachel.liddle@haymarket.com

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