Saskatchewan

U of S research looking at 3D printing tech as possible answer to nerve damage

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are looking at 3D printing technology as a possible solution to damaged nerves.

Grafts commonly used to treat nerve damage but only partial function restored

The tiny, bio-printed scaffolds are less than a centimetre long on each side. (Submitted by Liqun Ning)

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are looking at using 3D printing technology as a possible treatment for damaged nerves using microscopic structures.

A common treatment involves grafting healthy nerves to the damaged parts but the treatment isn't perfect, according to Liqun Ning, a post-doctoral fellow at the U of S. 

"Even the successful grafts only normally restore a portion of the nerve cell regional function so we are trying to find some new ways to solve this problem," Ning said.

Phase contrast imaging-computed tomography at CLS allows for accurate and highly-detailed 3D reconstructions of the scaffolds to be produced. (Submitted by Liqun Ning)

The possible solution involves 3D printed structure which would see Schwann cells — supporting cells in the nervous system that can force nerve cells to grow properly — introduced to the structure (called a scaffold).

The cells would then be forced to grow properly, essentially regenerating the nerves in a way a graft could not. 

Damage to the peripheral nervous system is sometimes caused by complications from disease such as diabetes and can result in a numbing of the sense and loss of control when it comes to motor functions.

It's still a long way from making its way to testing in humans, or medicine in general, as trials will have be conducted with animals to ensure the process works at all when it comes to living organisms. 

"We're trying to test our method and the structure, the 3D printed scaffolds, with animals and to see if the structure helps to regenerate the peripheral nerve of the animal," Ning said. 

The research requires work from several different fields, such as biomedicine, biology or engineering, for example. The eventual goal, Ning said, is that the 3D printing technology will outperform grafts when it comes to dealing with nerve damage. 

"The goal won't be so far away but we still need time," Ning said.

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