Millions who suffer from nerve damage and even paralysis may soon be able to take a heretofore impossible giant leap forward after the results of two successful Tel Aviv University studies — one using a gel inside a biodegradable nerve wall implant, and the second that injected a newly discovered protein compound in animal subjects that provided substantial healing results.
While medical discoveries bring us ever closer to regenerating organs such as the liver and even the heart muscle, the nervous system, whose damage leaves many people with permanent pain, loss of movement, and paralysis, remains uncured.
Earlier this year, a team headed by Prof. Zvi Nevo and Dr. Shimon Rochkind from Tel Aviv University created the gel-implant therapy that regenerated peripheral nerves.
Although the doctors say that the procedure is still a few years away from use in a clinical setting, the gel, called Guiding Regeneration Gel, promotes nerve growth and was also found to potentially restore function to a damaged or torn nerve, with or without the use of the biodegradable implant.
“The gel by itself can be used as a stand-alone product, acting as an aid to cell therapy,” said Rochkind in a TAU interview. “GRG is not only able to preserve cells, it can support their survival while being used for therapy and transplantation.”
Every day, our bodies use a vast nerve network set in motion by electrical signals within our body. Peripheral nerves transmit signals from the spinal cord out to the rest of the body and they also reverse the process, transmitting external signals back to the spinal cord.
A damaged nerve cannot communicate with the rest of the nervous system or transmit signals back and forth as it’s designed to, which impacts a person’s ability to move and feel.
The key to the gel-implant healing process, said Rochkind, is that the implant, which is tube-like, creates a bridge that encourages the torn cell ends to connect.
The gel is derived from anti-oxidants, synthetic fibrous protein peptides, and hyaluronic acid to prevent drying. The tube was a major factor in the restoration process, said Rockind, “even in cases with massive nerve damage.
“When grown in the gel, cells show excellent development as well as intensive fiber growth,” he said. “This could have implications for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s, for which researchers are actively exploring cell therapy as a potential solution.”
Another 2013 study at TAU by Prof. Illana Gozes, a recent recipient of the Meitner-Humboldt Research Award for her lifelong contribution to brain sciences and on the faculty of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, shows great promise but is further away from an applied clinical use.
Gozes, the director of TAU’s Adams Super Center for Brain Studies, who holds the Lily and Avraham Gildor chair for the investigation of growth factors along with her research team developed NAP, a peptide compound that “heals” microscopic tube-like units found inside brain cells called microtubule networks.
The compunds ultimately transmit important proteins that allow the cells to communicate. This is the kind of communication that fails in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The experiment, using two groups of animal subjects, found that one injection of NAP could preserve and revive damaged microtubule networks.
Both the mice group that was genetically produced to have the nerve cell damage and the group in which it was induced by the use of an injected substance showed retarded cell damage or restored nerve cell function.
In both control groups of mice that did not receive the NAP, each continued to experience nerve cell decline.
The study was published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.
Gozes said that future research might discover which patients would benefit the most from the therapy by developing a better clinical application.
Earlier research with NAP indicated that patients with low cognitive function scores, which is usually an indication of a developing case of Alzheimer’s disease, improved with the use of NAP.
In addition, earlier studies were shown to improve the damaged microtubule networks of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In August of this year, TAU won 21 grants awarded by Israel’s Teva Pharmaceutical Industries from its new National Network of Excellence program, which was created to fight Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other neurodegenerative diseases,
Six more research institutions, including the Technion, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and
Hebrew University of Jerusalem won a combined 25 grants.