Surgical reapposition of peripheral nerve results in some axonal regeneration and functional recovery, but the clinical outcome in long distance nerve defects is disappointing and research continues to utilize further interventional approaches to optimize functional recovery. We describe the use of nerve constructs consisting of decellularized vein grafts filled with spider silk fibers as a guiding material to bridge a 6.0 cm tibial nerve defect in adult sheep.
The nerve constructs were compared to autologous nerve grafts. Regeneration was evaluated for clinical, electrophysiological and histological outcome. Electrophysiological recordings were obtained at 6 months and 10 months post surgery in each group. Ten months later, the nerves were removed and prepared for immunostaining, electrophysiological and electron microscopy. Immunostaining for sodium channel (NaV 1.6) was used to define nodes of Ranvier on regenerated axons in combination with anti-S100 and neurofilament. Anti-S100 was used to identify Schwann cells. Axons regenerated through the constructs and were myelinated indicating migration of Schwann cells into the constructs. Nodes of Ranvier between myelin segments were observed and identified by intense sodium channel (NaV 1.6) staining on the regenerated axons. There was no significant difference in electrophysiological results between control autologous experimental and construct implantation indicating that our construct are an effective alternative to autologous nerve transplantation.
This study demonstrates that spider silk enhances Schwann cell migration, axonal regrowth and remyelination including electrophysiological recovery in a long-distance peripheral nerve gap model resulting in functional recovery. This improvement in nerve regeneration could have significant clinical implications for reconstructive nerve surgery.