7 February 2017

Discovery Sheds Light on How Nerve Cells Self-Repair

MRC-funded researchers have discovered how a protein in the body enables nerves to repair themselves after injury. The finding could ultimately lead to treatments for those whose peripheral nerves (those outside the brain and spinal cord) have been damaged, for example through traumatic injuries or diabetes.

The scientists, from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, discovered that a protein called Merlin, which was known to play a part in suppressing the growth of nerve tumours, is also vital to the process by which nerves repair themselves.

Merlin protein is found in Schwann cells, which wrap around the nerve cell projections that carry information in and out of the spinal cord and brain, helping nerves to signal to one another. Schwann cells have the rare ability to regenerate themselves after injury, and the researchers found that Merlin was crucial in directing this repair.

In mice which had been genetically altered to remove Merlin, Schwann cells were unable to repair damage to the peripheral nerves. Further experiments suggested that failure of nerve repair in Merlin-free Schwann cells was down to another protein, YAP, shedding more light on the complex pathway of signalling within these cells that controls nerve regeneration. 

Lead author Professor David Parkinson said: “Peripheral nerve damage has limited treatment options and has a detrimental effect on the lives of those who have sustained it. We are very excited by our findings because they identify, for the first time, the mechanisms by which nerve damage repair happens. By understanding the mechanism we can develop effective therapies to produce nerve repair in situations where that might not have been an option before.”

Dr Jacqui Oakley, MRC Programme Manager for Neuronal Function, said: “This research has uncovered another vital piece of the jigsaw puzzle in discovering how nerves regenerate, with potential impact in the future for trauma and diabetes patients and even elderly people whose nerves have lost the ability to repair themselves. This highlights the importance of funding basic research, which is a central tenet of the MRC’s research strategy.”

The original research paper ‘Merlin controls the repair capacity of Schwann cells after injury by regulating Hippo/YAP activity’ was published in the Journal of Cell Biology, 30 January 2017.