Research finds solution to common surgical problem of nerve damage

A research collaboration including scientists from Oregon State University has developed a new technology to help surgeons know where a patient’s nerves are, lessening the chance of nerve damage.

The technology is based on hydrogels, three-dimensional networks of polymers that absorb and retain large amounts of water, and takes aim at a surgical complication that’s widespread and persistent.

Depending on the procedure, OSU’s Adam Alani says, a patient can face a double-digit percentage chance of sustaining a nerve injury.

For example, he notes, people needing their thyroid gland removed are looking at a 15% likelihood of voice changes resulting from damage to their recurrent laryngeal nerves.

Apply those odds to the 12% of the United States’ population that is likely to develop a thyroid condition, for which thyroidectomy is a common treatment, and the numbers for that type of operation alone are staggering.

“Nerve sparing techniques have been around for decades, but nerve identification and sparing remain a big challenge, with success rates strongly correlated with an individual surgeon’s skill and experience,” said Alani, a researcher in the OSU College of Pharmacy. “Intraoperative nerve damage affects all surgical specialties and represents a significant problem even for surgeries that are performed all of the time like prostatectomies, hysterectomies, hernia repair and thyroidectomies.”

Alani, an adjunct faculty member at Oregon Health & Science University, worked with OHSU colleague Summer Gibbs on the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Findings were published in Biomaterials.

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