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Tuesday, 17 August, 1999, 18:57 GMT 19:57 UK
Nerve repair 'within two years'
Lab work
Researchers are growing nerve tissue in the laboratory
Researchers believe they are close to successfully re-connecting a severed nerve in the laboratory.

The breakthrough could mean that doctors will soon be able to restore movement to people who have lost the use of limbs in accidents.

This can be done at present, but only by taking a graft, which can lead to the loss of feeling elsewhere in the body.

However, the new technique will only help people who have suffered damage to peripheral nerves, not those who have spinal injuries, as central nervous system tissue cannot be regenerated.

The new technique, being perfected by a team of British scientists, involves growing nerve tissue in tiny tubes to bridge the gap between the ends of a severed nerve.

The tubes later dissolve away.

Lead researcher Dr Georgio Terenghi, from the Royal Free Hospital in London, said laboratory trials of the new technique had proved "promising".

He said: "We hope that the first trials on patients will begin in two years and if successful, treatment could be widely available in five years.

"This treatment will have a profound effect on those patients who would otherwise be left without full use of their hands or legs."

Severe nerve damage

At present surgeons repair damaged peripheral nerves with a graft - a section of nerve fibre is taken from another part of the patient's body, such as the foot, and transplanted.

In cases of serious injury lengths of grafted nerve up to 30 centimetres long have to be used.

While this repairs one area of damage it creates another, often resulting in numbness at the place from where the graft is taken.

Dr Terenghi's technique avoids the need for a graft. Instead nerve tissue is persuaded to grow through a length of biodegradable tubing glued or stitched between the cut nerve ends.

This is done by coating the inside of the tubing with special cells - called Schwann cells - which release proteins that encourage nerve growth.

Dr Terenghi said: "At the moment what surgeons do is take a nerve from a less important part of the body and transfer it to the site of injury. Generally they take it from the lower leg, but then you lose sensation in that part of the body.

"If our technique works, it means you won't have to cut away a second piece of nerve to repair the first. A patient could regain the function of his hand, for example, without losing sensation in his foot."

Cell cultivation

The researchers have already succeeded in cultivating Schwann cells in the laboratory and injecting them into the tubes, and are now beginning to grow nerves.

GTECH UK Corporation, technology suppliers to the National Lottery, has donated 90,000 to the project.

In a real situation, the Schwann cells would be obtained from a small surgically removed piece of the patient's own nerve tissue in order to avoid rejection by the immune system.

Dr Terenghi said the length of time the tubes needed to remain in the patient depended on the length of nerve fibre being grown.

Nerves grow at a rate of about one millimetre a day, so in the case of a long nerve - such as one running from the upper arm to the spinal cord - it could take up to a year or more.

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