Long-gap peripheral nerve repair through sustained release of a neurotrophic factor in nonhuman primates

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Science Translational Medicine  22 Jan 2020:
Vol. 12, Issue 527, eaav7753
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aav7753

Growth factor guidance

Injuries to peripheral nerves that result in small gaps can heal after reapproximation; however, large gaps that occur after severe injuries require autograft implantation. As an alternative to autografts, Fadia et al. developed biodegradable polymer scaffolds that release a neurotrophic growth factor. In nonhuman primates, growth factor–eluting scaffolds led to increased nerve conduction velocity, greater Schwann cell recruitment, and similar functional recovery as compared to autograft treatment 1 year after median nerve injury. Results suggest that the acellular conduits could improve peripheral nerve regeneration.


Severe injuries to peripheral nerves are challenging to repair. Standard-of-care treatment for nerve gaps >2 to 3 centimeters is autografting; however, autografting can result in neuroma formation, loss of sensory function at the donor site, and increased operative time. To address the need for a synthetic nerve conduit to treat large nerve gaps, we investigated a biodegradable poly(caprolactone) (PCL) conduit with embedded double-walled polymeric microspheres encapsulating glial cell line–derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) capable of providing a sustained release of GDNF for >50 days in a 5-centimeter nerve defect in a rhesus macaque model. The GDNF-eluting conduit (PCL/GDNF) was compared to a median nerve autograft and a PCL conduit containing empty microspheres (PCL/Empty). Functional testing demonstrated similar functional recovery between the PCL/GDNF-treated group (75.64 ± 10.28%) and the autograft-treated group (77.49 ± 19.28%); both groups were statistically improved compared to PCL/Empty-treated group (44.95 ± 26.94%). Nerve conduction velocity 1 year after surgery was increased in the PCL/GDNF-treated macaques (31.41 ± 15.34 meters/second) compared to autograft (25.45 ± 3.96 meters/second) and PCL/Empty (12.60 ± 3.89 meters/second) treatment. Histological analyses included assessment of Schwann cell presence, myelination of axons, nerve fiber density, and g-ratio. PCL/GDNF group exhibited a statistically greater average area occupied by individual Schwann cells at the distal nerve (11.60 ± 33.01 μm2) compared to autograft (4.62 ± 3.99 μm2) and PCL/Empty (4.52 ± 5.16 μm2) treatment groups. This study demonstrates the efficacious bridging of a long peripheral nerve gap in a nonhuman primate model using an acellular, biodegradable nerve conduit.

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