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Study finds drugs that can reverse nerve damage

January 18, 2017 — 

People who suffer from chronic numbness or pain and tingling in their extremities, caused by diabetes or other conditions, might soon get relief.

A study by an international team of researchers has found that a class of drugs prescribed for other medical issues such as nearsightedness, incontinence or peptic ulcers may also prevent numbness and pain in fingers, arms and legs.

Led by Dr. Paul Fernyhough of the University of Manitoba and St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, and Dr. Nigel Calcutt of the University of California at San Diego, the researchers found that antimuscarinic drugs such as atropine or pirenzepine can reverse the numbness and pain, called neuropathy, often experienced by people with diabetes, HIV, or as a side effect of cancer chemotherapy.

“The costs of treating these diseases and associated morbidities exceed the costs for treating breast cancer. For the first time we have identified a new class of drugs that can reverse nerve damage in animal models of these diseases,” says Fernyhough.

In peripheral neuropathy the nerve endings of the peripheral nerves die leading to severe impacts on quality of life. For example, patients suffer from intractable pain, foot ulcers, infections and ultimately amputations.

There are presently no treatments other than palliative care. The study found that widely-used drugs targeting a key receptor in the neural pathways also regulate the growth of nerve fibres and can stimulate their growth. The drugs drive nerve fibre regeneration and repair in disease states such as diabetes and chemotherapy where there is otherwise irreversible nerve damage.

Calcutt, Fernyhough and Lakshmi Kotra of the University of Toronto together have founded the biotech company WinSanTor to specifically develop the therapeutic potential of this novel approach to treating neuropathy.

“This data opens the possibility that the process of peripheral nerve degeneration may be therapeutically reversible, and now with the potential to use existing drugs, we can rapidly translate these findings to clinical trials,” says Stanley Kim, co-founder and CEO of WinSanTor. “Peripheral neuropathy is a major and often neglected health problem affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world, including a majority of diabetes patients, and we can’t afford to wait any longer in advancing treatments for this disease.”

“An exciting aspect of the work is that these are new uses for old drugs,” adds Fernyhough. “They have been used in humans for over 20 years with no serious side effects and have an excellent safety profile. We expect Phase 1 trials to progress smoothly with Phase 2 trials arranged and already funded for 2017.”

“We are proud of Dr Fernyhough’s exciting finding and the clinical implications of this discovery,” says Dr. Grant Pierce, Executive Director of Research at St Boniface Hospital. “It is another example of the successful history at St Boniface Hospital of translating our lab bench findings into valuable medical applications to benefit the health of Canadians.”

“I congratulate Drs. Fernyhough and Calcutt on their findings,” says Dr. Digvir Jayas, Vice-President (Research and International) and Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba. “This research will benefit millions of people who are affected by chronic diseases.”

The results of the study will be published this month in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The research was funded by grants from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the National Institutes of Health, with support from St. Boniface Hospital Foundation.

The University of Manitoba – Manitoba’s research university – has a tradition of excellence in research, scholarly work and other creative activities spanning over 140 years, having made seminal contributions in many fields and finding life-changing solutions to problems being faced by peoples of Manitoba, Canada, and the world through fundamental and applied research.

St. Boniface Hospital Foundation was founded in 1971 and is the primary fundraising organization for St. Boniface Hospital. The Foundation is dedicated to making possible the many innovations in health research and patient care taking place at the Hospital. Research at St. Boniface Hospital is where medical discoveries are made; science is translated into practices that improve human health; and today’s best minds are shaping tomorrow’s advances in health care.


Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

21 comments on “Study finds drugs that can reverse nerve damage

  1. Wendy Meidinger

    I have fibromyalgia & was rear-ended last February…My nerve pain has escalated from whiplash to my neck & shoulders. This has caused me to stop working & greatly affects my sleep. Thank you for your research in this.

  2. michael coffman

    I have taken opiates for 27 years for painful peripheral neuropathy.I pray this drug will be available soon for compassionate reasons to those who have suffered for to long.I have seen the very best medical doctors in san diego since 1989 when i became ill and with this terrible illness.Please rush the availability of this new medication.

  3. Frances Jacob

    What an encouraging article…it’s a glimmer of hope for those who live with the brutall pain of perepheral neuropathy. I’m going to print this and give it to my Dr.

  4. Daniel Commerford

    I suffer from peripheral neuropathy induced by chemo therapy. I pray this comes to fruition quickly. When and where are the clinical trials?

    1. UM Today staff - Author

      Dr. Fernyhough replies: “We plan phase 2 clinical trials next year in Toronto but in persons with diabetic neuropathy.”

  5. Tom Bailey

    Any plans for a trial for patients with idiopathic polyneuropathy? I’m anxiously waiting for some relief. Thanks.

  6. Denise Carlson

    I Am Desperate for any relief possible. I have been diagnosed with neuropathy, raynaunds and erthromelalgia.

  7. John Dove

    My feet, legs, now my hands – who wants to live in constant pain with no relief. I ‘ve went from working my ass off and loving It, 12, 18 hour days to nothing. To being disabled. I can’t even mow my own yard. God help us.

  8. Waza black

    Please can you let me know if studies are still ongoing in humans?.. and what is the outcome of those studies?…I am willing to be someone you can trial the tests on if needed…kind Regards…Waza black.


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    I at times have a very hard time walking around and other times not as hard because I was influenced by a family member to try taking medical CBD Cannabis oil for the family member has a disease called polymyositis which created much
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  10. Margaret Powell

    I have terrible burning feet and cramping pain that has been going on for several years, I am desperate for relief please include me as trial candidate for tests you may be conducting. At the moment I take gabapentin 400 mg every 24 hrs and cbd oil, thank you. Margaret Powell.

  11. Carol Boyd

    My son has idopathic small fibre neuropathy. He is 32 years of age and should not have to suffer with such pain in his life or should anyone with this disease. He worked day and night dry walling for years, ran, worked out 5 days a week and rode his bike. Did he over do it, not eat enough, have vitamin deficiency, toxins in his body, who knows. If there is a drug out there that can help with his pain he would be happy to try them.

  12. Gina Mari

    I have peripheral neuropathy and persistant tendinosis as a result of a reaction to Levofloxacin. It is used as an antibiotic, but was developed as a chemo drug. I cannot take NSAIDS, steroids or opiates since the reaction, my hope lies in this research. Thank you.

  13. Joe

    I have had Type 1 diabetes for well over 50 years and have fairly regular foot pain. Might I be included in your next trial? Thank you!

  14. Mike

    Is this drug available yet? I suffer from peripheral neuropathy from side effects from chemo. Would love to get relief.

  15. Diana

    Anyone ever find out the results of the study on using these types of drugs as a cure or prevention of peripheral neurology?

  16. Michael

    Can someone Please let me know where the study stands for this drug. I have tried for several weeks with no luck.
    I would greatly appreciate it if someone would send me some kind of response.

  17. Louise Sabourin

    I’ve been a type 2 diabetic for approx 20 years. My neuropathy is bad. I take CBD oil which helps with the arthritis too but not so much with the neuropathy. I would love to be included in your trials. I suffer everyday with this and it would be nice to get some relief. Thank you

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