Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Wrappers Delight

Lab-grown nerves cells used to find out why some nerves heal but others can be damaged permanently

12 August 2019

Wrappers Delight

Hoping to understand why some nerves heal, while injury to others leaves permanent damage, researchers grew this artificial bed of nerve cells or neurons. On the left, stringy neuron fibres called axons develop along tiny channels towards the chamber on the right. Here they meet oligodendrocytes (green) – cells which wrap around and protect the axons, just as they do in our spinal cord. After injury to a peripheral nerve, in the hand for example, 'broken' bits of neuron quickly disintegrate and are cleared away so fresh growth can begin. In the spine things are different. Making tiny cuts in these lab-grown axons to mimic spinal injury, researchers found that oligodendrocytes actually block the clearing process and prevent healing. Boosting levels of VEGFR1 – a protein at work in neurons elsewhere in the body – restores 'healing' in the lab, raising hopes for future treatments to prevent lasting nerve damage or paraplegia.

Written by John Ankers

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