According to researchers, the findings could lead to a new treatment option when nerves are cut or crushed from trauma.
The researchers reported using a gel made from keratin to test on animals and found that it was able to speed up nerve regeneration and improve nerve function as compared to current treatment options.
"We found that the nerve repair happened more quickly and consistently, and that functional recovery was higher. The fact that we were able to accomplish this with gels made from keratin is pretty remarkable," said Mark Van Dyke, Ph.D., senior author and an assistant professor of regenerative medicine.
Present treatments include microsurgery to sew two ends of the nerve together, using a nerve from another part of the body to replace a damaged section, or placing an empty tube between the cut ends so that nerve fibres can grow through it and back into the muscle. But grafting a nerve creates another injury site and is not possible in all patients.
The tubes, known as nerve guidance conduits, cannot be used in gaps longer than three or four centimetres and nerve regeneration with this method is not always successful. For example, after about 17 years of age, nerves do not regenerate as well.
While other natural materials such as, collagen, have been used in the conduits to promote nerve regeneration, Van Dyke's research team was the first to use keratin, which is believed to contain molecules that regulate cell behaviour.
As part of the study, the researchers used hair cut at a local barbershop and chemically processed it to remove the keratin. The keratin protein was purified and used to form gels that filled the nerve guidance conduits.
They said that keratin signals other cells, called Schwann cells, to grow through a complex process that clears a path for cells to grow.
"By using keratin to activate these cells, we're trying to tap into the natural healing cascade. We believe that keratin helps amp up Schwann cell activity and give the nerve regeneration process a head start," Van Dyke said.
Animal studies revealed 100 percent of mice treated with the keratin conduits showed visible nerve regeneration after six weeks, compared to only 50 percent who got the empty conduit.
The researchers also found the speed of nerve impulses and the level of signal that got through to the nerve was best in the keratin group.
"The results suggest that a conduit filler derived from hair keratins can promote an outcome comparable to a grafted nerve," said Van Dyke.
The findings are published in the current issue of Biomaterials.