Innovative nerve conduits for peripheral nerve reconstruction are needed in order to specifically support peripheral nerve regeneration (PNR) whenever nerve autotransplantation is not an option. Specific support of PNR could be achieved by neurotrophic factor delivery within the nerve conduits via nanotechnology or stem cell engineering and transplantation. Here, we comparatively investigated the bioactivity of selected neurotrophic factors conjugated to iron oxide nanoparticles (np-NTFs) and of bone marrow-derived stem cells genetically engineered to overexpress those neurotrophic factors (NTF-BMSCs). The neurite outgrowth inductive activity was monitored in culture systems of adult and neonatal rat sensory dorsal root ganglion neurons as well as in the cell line from rat pheochromocytoma (PC-12) cell sympathetic culture model system. We demonstrate that np-NTFs reliably support numeric neurite outgrowth in all utilized culture models. In some aspects, especially with regard to their long-term bioactivity, np-NTFs are even superior to free NTFs. Engineered NTF-BMSCs proved to be less effective in induction of sensory neurite outgrowth but demonstrated an increased bioactivity in the PC-12 cell culture system. In contrast, primary nontransfected BMSCs were as effective as np-NTFs in sensory neurite induction and demonstrated an impairment of neuronal differentiation in the PC-12 cell system. Our results evidence that nanotechnology as used in our setup is superior over stem cell engineering when it comes to in vitro models for PNR. Furthermore, np-NTFs can easily be suspended in regenerative hydrogel matrix and could be delivered that way to nerve conduits for future in vivo studies and medical application.
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