A new combination of tissue engineering techniques could reduce the need for nerve grafts, according to new research by The Open University. Regeneration of nerves is challenging when the damaged area is extensive, and surgeons currently have to take a nerve graft from elsewhere in the body, leaving a second site of damage. Nerve grafts contain aligned tissue structures and Schwann cells that support and guide neuron growth through the damaged area, encouraging function to be restored. The research, published in Biomaterials, reported a way to manufacture artificial nerve tissue with the potential to be used as an alternative to nerve grafts.
Pieces of Engineered Neural Tissue (EngNT) are formed by controlling natural Schwann cell behaviour in a three-dimensional collagen gel so that the cells elongate and align, then a stabilisation process removes excess fluid to leave robust artificial tissues. These living biomaterials contain aligned Schwann cells in an aligned collagen environment, recreating key features of normal nerve tissue.