Peripheral nerve injuries are a source of chronic disability. Incomplete recovery from such injuries results in motor and sensory dysfunction and the potential for the development of chronic pain. The repair of human peripheral nerve injuries with traditional surgical techniques has limited success, particularly when a damaged nerve segment needs to be replaced. An injury to a long segment of peripheral nerve is often repaired using autologous grafting of “noncritical” sensory nerve. Although extensive axonal regeneration can be observed extending into these grafts, recovery of function may be absent or incomplete if the axons fail to reach their intended target. The goal of this review was to summarize the progress that has occurred in developing an artificial neural prosthesis consisting of autologous Schwann cells (SCs), and to detail future directions required in translating this promising therapy to the clinic.
In the authors' laboratory, methods are being explored to combine autologous SCs isolated using cell culture techniques with axon guidance channel (AGC) technology to develop the potential to repair critical gap length lesions within the peripheral nervous system. To test the clinical efficacy of such constructs, it is critically important to characterize the fate of the transplanted SCs with regard to cell survival, migration, differentiation, and myelin production. The authors sought to determine whether the use of SC-filled channels is superior or equivalent to strategies that are currently used clinically (for example, autologous nerve grafts). Finally, although many nerve repair paradigms demonstrate evidence of regeneration within the AGC, the authors further sought to determine if the regeneration observed was physiologically relevant by including electrophysiological, behavioral, and pain assessments. If successful, the development of this reparative approach will bring together techniques that are readily available for clinical use and should rapidly accelerate the process of bringing an effective nerve repair strategy to patients with peripheral nerve injury prior to the development of pain and chronic disability.