Sensory neuronal protection & improving regeneration after peripheral nerve injury
Abstract: Peripheral nerve trauma is a common cause of considerable functional morbidity, and healthcare expenditure. Particularly in the ~15% of injuries unsuitable for primary repair, standard clinical management results in inadequate sensory restitution in the majority of cases, despite the rigorous application of complex microsurgical techniques. This can largely be explained by the failure of surgical management to adequately address the neurobiological hurdles to optimal regeneration. Most significant of these is the extensive sensory neuronal death that follows injury, and which is accompanied by a reduction in the regenerative potential of axotomised neurons, and in the supportive capacity of the Schwann cell population if nerve repair is delayed. The present study aimed to accurately delineate the timecourse of neuronal death, in order to identify a therapeutic window during which clinically applicable neuroprotective strategies might be adopted. It then proceeded to investigate means to increase the regenerative capacity of chronically axotomised neurons, and to augment the Schwann cells’ ability to promote that regenerative effort. Unilateral sciatic nerve transection in the rat was the model used, initially assessing neuronal death within the L4&5 dorsal root ganglia by a combination of morphology, TdT uptake nick-end labelling (TUNEL), and statistically unbiased estimation of neuronal loss using the stereological optical disector technique. Having identified 2 weeks, and 2 months post-axotomy as the most biologically relevant timepoints to study, the effect upon neuronal death of systemic treatment with acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR 10, or 50mg/kg/day) or N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC 30, or 150mg/kg/day) was determined. A model of secondary nerve repair was then adopted; either 2 or 4 months after unilateral sciatic nerve division, 1cm gap repairs were performed using either reversed isografts, or poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) conduits containing an alginate-fibronectin hydrogel. Six weeks later nerve regeneration and the Schwann cell population were quantified by digital image analysis of frozen section immunohistochemistry. Sensory neuronal death begins within 24 hours of injury, but takes 1 week to translate into significant neuronal loss. The rate of neuronal death peaks 2 weeks after injury, and neuronal loss is essentially complete by 2 months post-axotomy. Nerve repair is incompletely neuroprotective, but the earlier it is performed the greater the benefit. Two clinically safe pharmaceutical agents, ALCAR & NAC, were found to virtually eliminate sensory neuronal death after peripheral nerve transection. ALCAR also enhanced nerve regeneration independently of its neuroprotective role. Plain PHB conduits were found to be technically simple to use, and supported some regeneration, but were not adequate in themselves. Leukaemia inhibitory factor enhanced nerve regeneration, though cultured autologous Schwann cells (SC’s) were somewhat more effective. Both were relatively more efficacious after a 4 month delay in nerve repair. The most profuse regeneration was found with recombinant glial growth factor (rhGGF-2) in repairs performed 2 months after axotomy, with results that were arguably better than were obtained with nerve grafts. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the result found using both rhGGF-2 and SC’s in PHB conduits 4 months after axotomy. In summary, these findings reinforce the significance of sensory neuronal death in peripheral nerve trauma, and the possibility of its` limitation by early nerve repair. Two agents for the adjuvant therapy of such injuries were identified, that can virtually eliminate neuronal death, and enhance regeneration. Elements in the creation of a bioartificial nerve conduit to replace, or surpass autologous nerve graft for secondary nerve repair are presented.
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