Nerve damage has almost always been permanent. For younger patients there’s hope for full recovery after an incident but as we get older the ability to repair nerve damage decreases significantly. Indeed by the time we reach our 60s the best we could hope for is what’s called “protective sensation”, the ability to determine things like hot from cold. The current range of treatments are mostly limited to grafts, often using nerves from the patient’s own body to repair the damage, however even those have limited success in practice. However that could all be set to change with the development of a process which can produce nerve regeneration conduits using 3D scanning and printing.
The process was developed by a collaboration of numerous scientists from the following institutions: University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, Princeton University, and Johns Hopkins University. The research builds upon one current cutting edge treatment which uses special structures to trigger regeneration, called nerve guidance conduits. Traditionally such conduits could only be produced in simple shapes, meaning they were only able to repair nerve damage in straight lines. This new treatment however can work on any arbitrary nerve structure and has proven to work in restoring both motor and sensory function in severed nerves both in-vitro (in a petri dish) and in-vivo (in a living thing).
How they accomplished this is really quite impressive. First they used a 3D scanner to reproduce the structure of the nerve they’re trying to regenerate, in this case it was the sciatic nerve (pictured above). Then they used the resulting model to 3D print a nerve guidance conduit that was the exact size and shape required. This was then implanted into a mouse who had a 10mm gap in their sciatic nerve (far too long to be sewn back together). This conduit then successfully triggered the regeneration of the nerve and after 10 weeks the rat showed a vastly improved ability to walk again. Since this process had only been verified on linear nerves before this process shows great promise for regenerating much more complicated nerve structures, like those found in us humans.
The great thing about this is that it can be used for any arbitrary nerve structure. Hospitals equipped with such a system would be able to scan the injury, print the appropriate nerve guide and then implant it into the patient all on site. This could have wide reaching ramifications for the treatment of nerve injuries, allowing far more to be treated and without the requisite donor nerves needing to be harvested.
Of course this treatment has not yet been tested in humans but the FDA has approved similar versions of this treatment in years past which have proven to be successful. With that in mind I’m sure that this treatment will prove successful in a human model and from there it’s only a matter of time before it finds its way into patients worldwide. Considering how slow progress has been in this area it’s quite heartening to see dramatic results like this and I’m sure further research into this area will prove just as fruitful.