Engineering Approaches for Functional Nerve Regeneration
Schmidt, Christine E.
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Damage to spinal cord and peripheral nerve tissue can have a devastating impact on the quality of life for individuals suffering from nerve injuries. Our research is focused on analyzing and designing biomaterials that can interface with neurons and specifically stimulate and guide nerves to regenerate. These biomaterials might be required for facial and hand reconstruction or in trauma cases, and potentially could be used to aid the regeneration of damaged spinal cord. New technologies to aid nerve regeneration will ultimately require that biomaterials be designed both to physically support tissue growth as well as to elicit desired receptor-specific responses from particular cell types. One way of achieving such interactive biomaterials is with the use of natural-based biomaterials that interact favorable with the body. In particular, our research has focused on developing advanced hyaluronan-based scaffolds that can be used for peripheral and spinal nerve regeneration applications. Hyaluronic acid (HA; also known as hyaluronan) is a non-sulfated, high molecular weight, glycosaminoglycan found in all mammals and is a major component of the extracellular matrix in the nervous system. HA has been shown to play a significant role during embryonic development, extracellular matrix homeostasis, and, most importantly for our purposes, in wound healing and tissue regeneration. HA is a versatile biomaterial that has been used in a number of applications including tissue engineering scaffolds, clinical therapies, and drug delivery devices. Our group has devised novel techniques to process this sugar material into forms that can be used in therapeutic applications. For example, we are using advanced laser-based processes to create “lines” of specific proteins within the hyaluronan materials to provide physical and chemical guidance features for the individual re-growing axons. We have found that these materials facilitate neuron interactions and are thus highly promising for regenerating peripheral and spinal nerves in vivo. In a parallel approach to foster nerve regeneration, our group has developed natural tissue scaffolds termed “acellular tissue grafts” created by chemical processing of normal intact nerve tissue. These grafts are created from natural biological tissue— human cadaver nerves— and are chemically processed so that they do not cause an immune response and are therefore not rejected in patients. These grafts have been optimized to maintain the natural intricate architecture of the nerve pathways, and thus, they are ideal for promoting the re-growth of damaged axons across lesions. These engineered, biological nerve grafts are used in the clinic and are an example of how our research is promoting the development of biomedical products that can improve human health.