Research looks to reconnect nerve damage

University of Calgary researchers have recently published findings on peripheral nerve regeneration that could potentially help people regain lost sensation and motor function.

Dr. Douglas Zochodne has researched peripheral nerves, which allow for the sense of touch, since 2006. It is common for people with different nerve injuries, or neuropathy, to have damaged nerves regenerate at a slow rate. People with diabetes can also lose their sense of touch and suffer a great deal of pain.

The new research found that a protein in the human body, PTEN, blocks cells from regenerating too quickly to prevent cancer growth. The protein also prevents the regeneration of damaged peripheral nerves. Zochodne’s team found that by blocking PTEN, nerve growth dramatically improved.

“One of the reasons this was exciting was that there are a lot of these growth factors that people have discovered­ — and there’s something called a nerve growth factor — but they all act on several different parts of the nerve whereas PTEN is in all of the nerves,” said Zochodne. “All of the growth factors operate through pathways that are shut down by this PTEN, so if you can inhibit the inhibitor, all of these pathways open back up.”

PTEN blocks cells from regenerating too quickly but its absence may allow them to regenerate faster. First the team had to prove PTEN was indeed found in peripheral nerves. Following that, they attempted to speed up the regeneration process by knocking the gene out on rats.

“We never thought it would work to that extent. The amount of growth you see is just amazing compared to what control the animal has,” said Kimberly Christie, a PhD student and part of Zochodne’s team.

Although the discovery is exciting it is still only in the early stages. The team still needs to ensure that cancer is not caused by blocking the PTEN.

“[Christie] really took the vast majority of this and it’s her rigorous approach and attention to detail that made the experiment work,” said Zochodne of his PhD student. “The results were a bonus.”

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