Research being conducted at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory could result in reduced nerve pain for cancer patients and potential treatment for other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and nerve damage caused by traumatic injuries.

The Bar Harbor-based lab’s research was issued a “pending patent” status in January by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for two types of medications that could be used to reverse peripheral nerve damage that results from chemotherapy treatment in up to 40 percent of cancer patients.

The “pending patent” means the research can move forward from studies involving zebrafish to human tissue samples and, hopefully, clinical research trials on humans, officials said.

Dr. Sandra Rieger, who is leading the research effort at MDI, said the medications would be creams that would be rubbed onto typical areas in pain after chemotherapy, such as the palms of the hands, fingertips and soles of the feet. Rieger said MDI received a five-year, $1 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2013 to study the issue.

Rieger said the studies over the past two years have largely centered on zebrafish, which are often used for biomedical research because the fish share 70 percent of their genes with humans.

Rieger said research of the distal tail fin of the zebrafish – which most closely resembles the nerves in human extremities – led the research team to discover drugs that can be used to reverse nerve degeneration in the fish.


“We are now going to work with the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minnesota) to see if the results can be replicated in human tissue samples,” Rieger said. “We need to do a careful analysis.”

If all goes well with the research, the scientists would then move toward conducting clinical research trials with humans. Rieger said any drugs developed from the research are several years away from being approved by the Food and Drug Administration and hitting the market.

Still, Rieger acknowledged the potential of the research in alleviating pain. She said she worked with someone who underwent nerve pain after chemotherapy treatments, so she has seen how devastating the pain can be.

“I will be so happy if I could help these patients,” said Rieger, who is originally from Germany but has been in the United States since 2007. Rieger started working at MDI Biological Laboratory in 2011.

The MDI Biological Laboratory is a nonprofit biomedical research institution that studies numerous topics, including using the body’s natural ability to repair and regenerate damaged tissues.

“Currently, there is no effective treatment for the underlying causes of peripheral neuropathy, which affects 30 to 40 percent of chemotherapy patients,” said Dr. Kevin Strange, laboratory’s president, said in a statement. “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.”


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