OBJECTIVE Artificial nerve guides are being developed to substitute for autograft repair after peripheral nerve injuries. However, the use of conduits is limited by the length of the gap that needs to be bridged, with the success of regeneration highly compromised in long gaps. Addition of aligned proregenerative cells and extracellular matrix (ECM) components inside the conduit can be a good strategy to achieve artificial grafts that recreate the natural environment offered by a nerve graft. The purpose of this study was to functionalize chitosan devices with different cell types to support regeneration in limiting gaps in the rat peripheral nerve. METHODS The authors used chitosan devices combined with proteins of the ECM and cells in a rat model of sciatic nerve injury. Combinations of fibronectin and laminin with mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) or Schwann cells (SCs) were aligned within tethered collagen-based gels, which were placed inside chitosan tubes that were then used to repair a critical-size gap of 15 mm in the rat sciatic nerve. Electrophysiology and algesimetry tests were performed to analyze functional recovery during the 4 months after injury and repair. Histological analysis was performed at the midlevel and distal level of the tubes to assess the number of regenerated myelinated fibers. RESULTS Functional analysis demonstrated that SC-aligned scaffolds resulted in 100% regeneration success in a 15-mm nerve defect in this rat model. In contrast, animals that underwent repair with MSC-aligned constructs had only 90% regeneration success, and those implanted with acellular bridges had only 75% regeneration success. CONCLUSIONS These results indicate that the combination of chitosan conduits with ECM-enriched cellular gels represents a good alternative to the use of autografts for repairing long nerve gaps.
Keywords: CMAP = compound muscle action potential; FBS = fetal bovine serum; MSC = mesenchymal stem cell; PBS = phosphate-buffered saline; SC = Schwann cell; Schwann cells; alignment; chitosan; dpo = days postoperation; extracellular matrix; fibronectin; peripheral nerve.