A study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience (NIN) and the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) has shown that gene therapy following nerve damage leads to faster recovery, gene therapy and stimulated nerve cell survival and regeneration of nerve fibers over a long distance.
The results published in Brain magazine are an important step in the development of a new treatment for people with nerve damage.
The study says that nerves in the neck can be torn from the spinal cord during birth or after a traffic accident. As a result, these patients lose their arm function and are unable to perform daily activities such as drinking a cup of coffee.
Currently, surgical repair is the only available treatment for patients suffering from such nerve damage.
"After surgery, nerve fibers need to bridge many centimeters before they reach the muscles and nerve cells from which new fibers need to regenerate, most regenerating nerve fibers do not reach the muscles, and the restoration of arm function is disappointing and disappointingly incomplete", explains the researcher Ruben Eggers from the NIN.
By combining neurosurgical repair with gene therapy in rats, many of the dying nerve cells can be rescued and nerve fiber growth towards the muscle stimulated.
In this study, researchers used regulatable gene therapy with a growth factor that could be turned on and off by using a widely used antibiotic. "Since we were able to switch off gene therapy when the growth factor was no longer needed, the regeneration of new nerve fibers in the direction of the muscles was significantly improved," says Ruben Eggers.
To overcome the problem of detecting the immune system and removing the gene switch, the researchers developed a hidden version, a so-called "stealth switch". Professor Joost Verhaagen (NIN) explains: "The stealth gene change is an important step in the development of gene therapy for nerve damage, and the use of a stealth switch enhances gene therapy, making it even safer."
Gene therapy is not yet operational in patients. While the ability to turn off a therapeutic gene represents a major advance, researchers still found small amounts of the active gene when the switch was off. To optimize this therapy further research is needed.