Dr Paul Kingham and his team at the UK Centre for Tissue Regeneration (UKCTR) isolated the stem cells from the fat tissue of adult animals and differentiated them into nerve cells to be used for repair and regeneration of injured nerves. They are now about to start a trial extracting stem cells from fat tissue of volunteer adult patients, in order to compare in the laboratory human and animal stem cells.
Following that, they will develop an artificial nerve constructed from a biodegradable polymer to transplant the differentiated stem cells. The biomaterial will be rolled up into a tube-like structure and inserted between the two ends of the cut nerve so that the regrowing nerve fibre can go through it from one end to the other.
This 'bionic' nerve could also be used in people who have suffered trauma injuries to their limbs or organs, cancer patients whose tumour surgery has affected a nearby nerve trunk and people who have had organ transplants.
With a clinical trial on the biomaterial about to be completed, the researchers hope the treatment could be ready for use in four or five years.
"The frequency of nerve injury is one in every 1,000 of the population — or 50,000 cases in the UK — every year.
"The current repair method — a patient donating their own nerve graft to span the gap at the injury site — is far from optimal because of the poor functional outcome, the extra damage and the possibility of forming scars and tumours at the donor site. Tissue engineering using a combination of biomaterials and cell-based therapies, while at an early stage, promises a great improvement on that. Artificial nerve guides provide mechanical support, protect the re-growing nerve and contain growth factor and molecules favourable to regeneration. The patient will not be able to tell that they had ever 'lost' their limb and will be able carry on exactly as they did before."