The nerve to innovate

New treatments ahead for diabetic neuropathy

Dr. Fernyhough and team

Dr. Fernyhough and his team in the lab

It started out as any regular security check at the airport. Winnipegger Darrell Fierheller emptied his pockets and removed his shoes before walking through the scanner.

What he didn’t realize at the time is that in the hurried pace of a security line, he tossed his cell phone into one of his shoes. After walking through the scanner beep-free, he slipped on his shoe – phone still inside – and proceeded to wear his shoes for hours.

As a diabetic with neuropathy, he couldn’t feel the phone.

“Neuropathy takes away the sensitivity of your nerves,” Fierheller was told.

The phone incident a few years ago caused serious problems in his foot and contributed to a condition called Charcot foot that can lead to foot ulcers.

As the rate of diabetes skyrockets in Manitoba and elsewhere, there is a pressing need to find new and advanced ways of treating neuropathy. Dr. Paul Fernyhough is on the leading edge of the research.

“About half of diabetics will have some sort of nerve damage,” says Dr. Fernyhough, Director and Professor of the Cell Biology of Neurodegeneration Lab at St-Boniface Hospital Research. “This can lead to unrelenting pain, infected ulcers and in many cases, amputation.”

Dr. Fernyhough and his colleagues in Winnipeg and elsewhere are advancing a topical cream, applied directly to the skin, that could address and even reverse diabetic neuropathy. Early trials are very promising.

“We think we have a drug that is the first drug that could cure the disease,” says Dr. Fernyhough. “Not just placate it, but actually cure it.”

Not surprisingly, the cream has generated commercial interest that will lead to further testing. To advance the work, a private company called WinSanTor Biosciences Inc, has been established. This is a common practice at St-Boniface Hospital and throughout Canada’s research community. When products are brought to market successfully, there can be significant financial benefit to the Hospital, the University of Manitoba, and the researcher.

The neuropathy work has global implications, but it is especially important in Manitoba where 100,000 people live with diabetes and thousands of those undergo lower extremity amputation every year. It costs up to $150 million per year to treat diabetic neuropathy in Manitoba – direct costs, including amputation and foot treatment. Early detection and better treatments would enhance individual health, community well-being, and the provincial economy.

For 72-year-old Darrell Fierheller, it’s all about managing his condition. The diabetes itself is under control with medication, diet, and exercise. The neuropathy that he’s had for a decade is a different challenge.

“My fingertips are always tingling and feel like they’re asleep,” he says. “In my foot, I have a little bit of feeling in the ball and heel, but my balance is affected.”

Thanks to Dr. Paul Fernyhough and his colleagues, relief for Darrell Fierheller and others like him could be just around the corner.

This article was originally published in Believe magazine, Fall 2014. 

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