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Cell Therapy For Nerve Damage Brought Closer By New Technique

A new way to grow cells vital for nerve repair, developed by researchers from , could be a vital step for use in patients with severe nerve damage, including spinal injury (1).

Schwann cells are known to boost and amplify nerve growth in animal models, but their clinical use has been held back because they are difficult, time-consuming and costly to culture.

The Sheffield team, led by Professor , has developed a new technique with adult rat tissue which overcomes all these problems, producing Schwann cells in less than half the time and at much lower cost.

“The ability of Schwann cells to boost nerve growth was proved many years ago in animals, but if you want to use this technique with patients, the problem is: where do you get enough cells from?” says , from the University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“To reduce immune rejection, the cells have to be grown from the patient’s own tissue. Of course, you want to take the smallest amount of tissue necessary, so the technique must be efficient. It must also be fast, so treatment can begin as soon as possible after injury. For clinical use, it must also provide pure Schwann cells. And finally, to make it viable, it has to be at a reasonable cost.”

Existing methods for growing Schwann cells from promote the growth of another type of cell, called fibroblasts, which swamp the Schwann cells, reducing the speed they grow and their numbers. This means that large amounts of tissue are needed at the outset, to grow sufficient cells for therapeutic use. It also requires extra purification stages added to the process, making it slow and costly – taking up to 3 months to complete.

Professor Haycock and his team have come up with a very simple solution: feed the Schwann cells but starve the fibroblasts. The research, published today in Nature Protocols, uses an amino acid that only the Schwann cells can break down and feed off, and are able to produce a 97 per cent pure population of Schwann cells in a much shorter space of time – just 19 days – from a small sample of adult tissue.

Professor Haycock is confident the technique can be replicated in humans. His team are trialling same method using human , with results expected within the next 6 months.


(1) The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month authorised the first Phase 1 clinical trial in the USA into the use of Schwann cells to reduce paralysis in spinal cord injury: http://www.themiamiproject.org/announcement The trial will see Schwann cells cultured from leg nerve tissue injected into the spine of newly paralyzed patients. The treatment is expected to take place up to five weeks after the injury took place, a delay imposed by the time it takes to culture and purify the cells. If Professor Haycock’s method works with human tissue, this delay between injury and treatment could be substantially reduced.

1. John Haycock is Professor of Bioengineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He is director of the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering and associate director of the Kroto Research Institute.

2. Current options for treating nerve injury in humans include nerve grafts, which means losing a nerve in another part of the body, or nerve guides, another area where Professor Haycock is conducting research (see http://bit.ly/QWzm59). Using Schwann cells cultured using Professor Haycock’s new method, either on their own or with the conduit, could aid repair without loss of other nerves, as only a small amount of nerve tissue would need to be taken to begin the cell culture.

3. Integrated culture and purification of rat Schwann cells from freshly isolated adult tissue, Rossukon Kaewkhaw, Andy M Scutt & is published in Nature Protocols: doi:10.1038/nprot.2012.118

4. The research was funded by a PhD scholarship to Rossukon Kaewkhaw from the Royal Thai Government (Higher Educational Strategic Scholarships for Frontier Research Network, CHE-PhD SFR) to study at the University of Sheffield.

University of Sheffield