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Nerve cells found to be ‘unexpected helpers’ in wound healing

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Ground-breaking research showing that nerve cells in the skin help wounds to heal may lead to an “effective treatment for chronic wounds” in the future, according to Swiss researchers.

They found that, when an injury occurs, cells known as glial cells change into repair cells and disseminate into the wound, where they help the skin to regenerate.

“They distribute a diverse cocktail of factors, which support the wound healing”

Lukas Sommer

The researchers, from the University of Zurich, noted that an essential step in skin wound healing was wound closure, which was why shortly after an injury blood coagulated and sealed the wound.

However, for the injury to be able to heal permanently, they highlighted that the affected layers of the skin needed to be newly formed. For that to occur, a complex, only partially understood interplay takes place between various cell types in our skin.

Professor Lukas Sommer and his research group said they had now been able to show that peripheral nerve cells play a central role in this healing process.

They noted that there had long been indications that tissue needed to be supplied with nerves for optimal healing to occur, but the reason had previously remained unclear.

With the help of an animal model involving mice, the researchers discovered that fine nerve bundles changed drastically if they were injured when a skin wound occurs.

Cells along the injured nerve bundles, known as glial cells, are reprogrammed to become “repair cells” and, as a result, lose their contact to the nerve bundles and disseminate into the wound bed.

“There, they distribute a diverse cocktail of factors, which support the wound healing,” said Professor Sommer. Through genetic experiments, he was also able to prove that, among other things, the repair cells were important to help the wound close by supporting the necessary reconstitution of the dermis.

The researchers suggested their findings, if replicated in humans, could have potential for helping heal chronic wounds, in older people or patients with diabetes, for example.

They said the now wanted to work together with clinicians to better characterize the wound healing factors that are distributed by nerve cells.

“Injury-activated glia and/or their secretome might have therapeutic potential in human wound healing disorders,” they said in the journal Nature Communications.

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