Industrial Engineering

Regeneration Complex Nerves


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Researchers used a bioimaging technique called structured light scanning to reverse-engineer a 3-D template of a rat’s sciatic nerve, sent the template to a 3-D printer that constructed an exact scaffold for the nerve, and then implanted the structure into the rat. The result is shocking, the nerves grew back in 10 to 12 weeks.

All this time, nerves injury or disease can be healed using short, hollow tubes to fill gaps in damaged nerves. This technique works well for short rifts in straight nerves, but the human nervous system is more complex than a straight line. Different nerves serve different functions. Some send signals to tell muscles to function, while others transmit sensory signals from the skin to the brain.

Johnson and researchers at Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota wanted to develop a way to repair injuries with complex geometries and mixtures of different nerve types.

3-D printing, which can handle such complex geometries, held part of the answer. The other part, structured light scanning, prepares those geometries, and the 3-D printer turns those scans into an implantable product, Johnson said.

The next question is what happens if an automobile accident or battlefield injury causes so much damage that there isn’t enough tissue left to reverse-engineer a scaffold for the nerve. The solution, which future research will target, is an electronic library full of nerve tissue geometries.

Johnson said it’s thrilling to help develop manufacturing processes that could introduce mass customization into new industries and spaces such as the medical field and life sciences.