BAR HARBOR — Sandra Rieger, assistant professor at the MDI Biological Laboratory, has identified two drugs that potentially could be used to reverse peripheral nerve damage, or peripheral neuropathy, resulting from chemotherapy treatment for ovarian, breast, lung, pancreas and other cancers. The drugs also have potential applications for the treatment of peripheral nerve damage caused by diabetes, traumatic injuries and other conditions.
The drugs are the subject of a provisional patent filed by the laboratory earlier this month. Rieger, who is continuing to study the drugs, will work through the laboratory’s for-profit spinoff company, Novo Biosciences, to move the drugs into patient trials. If the drugs prove to be effective at treating nerve damage, they will be licensed to a pharmaceutical company for additional studies, with the aim of achieving FDA approval.
Rieger and other scientists working in the Kathryn W. Davis Center for Regenerative Medicine study tissue repair, regeneration and aging in a diverse range of organisms that have robust mechanisms to repair and regenerate tissue.
“Currently, there is no effective treatment for the underlying causes of peripheral neuropathy, which affects 30 to 40 percent of chemotherapy patients,” said Kevin Strange, president of the laboratory. “Our hope is that Dr. Rieger’s work in the zebrafish model will lead to an effective treatment for this condition, which can cause disabling difficulty in carrying out everyday activities such as walking, writing, getting dressed and handling small objects.”
Damage to the peripheral nervous system, which sends information from the brain and spinal cord to other parts of the body, can cause pain, numbing, tingling, temperature sensitivity and muscle weakness. If the damage is severe, it can lead to serious problems such as falls, changes in heart rate, changes in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, paralysis and even organ failure. Peripheral neuropathy is fairly common, especially among those over 55.
Reiger’s research has identified two new drugs that prevented the degeneration of axons (the long, slender protrusions of a nerve cell) and restored the touch response in zebrafish. Rieger uses zebrafish as a model because they share 70 percent of their genes with humans; their brief life spans also allow researchers to quickly gain valuable insight into fundamental scientific questions. Plans call for further testing in mammalian models, such as mice and/or rats, as well as in human skin.
“Once we’ve completed our studies on mammalian models, we’d like to collaborate with a medical institution or pharmaceutical company on clinical trials in humans,” Rieger said.