Physicians and researchers are hoping that cells from a nerve in a patient’s ankle will stem the degeneration of the nervous system caused by multiple sclerosis.

In July a Yale team transplanted Schwann cells from the sural nerve into a patient’s brain in an effort to reverse the stripping away of myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds nerve fibers in the spinal cord and brain. It was the first central nervous system transplantation to repair the myelin-forming cells in a patient with multiple sclerosis.

“The purpose of this experiment was to determine whether the procedure is safe and has enough promise to justify future research,” said Timothy Vollmer, M.D., associate professor of neurology and principal investigator on the experiment.

Animal studies have found that Schwann cells, which make myelin in peripheral nerves, can replace oligo-dendrocytes, which make myelin in the brain and spinal cord. Vollmer and his team wanted to determine whether Schwann cells can not only survive in the human brain, but also wrap myelin around nerve fibers and restore normal function.

Over two days in July Vollmer’s team first isolated Schwann cells from the sural nerve in the patient’s ankle. Then, a neurosurgery team led by Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’76, used a magnetic resonance imaging machine to guide a needle through the patient’s frontal lobe and inject the cells into a previously identified multiple sclerosis lesion. For the next six months researchers will monitor the patient with both neuro-imaging and functional assessments. Then surgeons will perform a biopsy to see whether the cells survived and made myelin.

The team included Jeffrey D. Kocsis, Ph.D., Stephen G. Waxman, M.D., Ph.D., and others. The research is funded by The Myelin Project in Washington, D.C.