Helping nerves to regrow using 3D printed scaffolds

3-D scans of a nerve from different angles are used to create a custom regeneration guide for complex nerves. Credit: University of Minnesota

Researchers from several US universities have joined forces to develop a way to create a guide to easy the regrowth of nerve damaged by a trauma or a disease.

The guide is obtained by a 3D printing process.

Our nerves have the potential to regenerate after an injury but this seldom happens because the process is very complex. In lay terms a nerve that has been cut by a trauma or injured by a disease would need to know where the other piece of the nerve is to be able to reconnect the two stubs.

By inserting a guide that connects the various parts (a nerve can branch and each branch would need to be reconnected) researchers have discovered that they can significantly increase the healing and restore functionality.

The first step, of course, is to create a 3D image of the nerve (or of the dangling stubs) and then to print a guide that can be used to connect them.

The guide is made of silicon and chemicals are embedded in the guide to stimulate the regrowth of the nerve. The guide is "glued" to the stubs and they start to regrow till they meet and re-establish the connectivity.

The researchers have experimented the method on rats, cutting and then reconnecting the sciatic nerve. Within 10 to 12 weeks they observed the regeneration of both the sensory and motor nerve leading to restoration of function.

Previous experiments have succeeded in regenerating a single nerve with no branches but this is the first time that it has been demonstrated the feasibility to regrow complex nerves.

Now the next step is to move to human experimentation. That would, if successful, greatly improve lives of the hundred thousands people that lose functionality because of nerve interruption.

Clearly this approach can work in re-joining a single nerve (and its branches) but it does not work when you have a dense bundle of nerves, as is the case when there is a spinal cord trauma. 

A very useful application of 3D printing technology!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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