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Health Beat: Dead people's nerves help the living

Health Beat: Dead people's nerves help the living

Damaged nerves can mean big problems. In order to fix a nerve, doctors used to have to sacrifice a nerve from another part of the body, but now there's an easier way.  

When a nerve is injured, pain, numbness, and loss of sensation are common. 

Jesse Head doesn't take the little things in life for granted since doctors found a large benign tumor in his jaw. 

"Just a general visit to the dentist and he found it on an x-ray," said Head. 

The tumor needed to be removed, but that would mean surgeons would also have to cut out Jesse's teeth, some of his jaw, and part of a large nerve.

"I'm dealing with nerves that involve sensation," said Dr. John Zuniga, chief of oral and maxillofacial surgery and professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Taking a graft from the leg used to be the only way to repair a damaged nerve, but it leads to permanent numbness in the leg, Zuniga said.

"It's a nerve injury to fix a nerve injury," he explained.

So instead, the doctor used part of a cadaver on Head. "Avance" is an engineered nerve from a deceased donor.

It's placed between the damaged segments, and nerves regenerate through tiny tubes.

"It's a scaffolding. It's like a biologic scaffolding," said Zuniga.

It helped Head keep the sensation in his face and mouth. Today, he's almost back to normal. 

"I feel great!" he exclaimed.

Results with the FDA-approved cadaver nerve are very similar to results seen when using a patient's own nerve, said Zuniga.

The most common causes of facial nerve damage include wisdom teeth extractions, jaw reconstructive surgery, dental implants and needle injection injuries, Zuniga said.

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DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. John Zuniga about fixing damaged nerves

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