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Published April 19, 2024

Study on nerve disorders looks to help diabetic and recovering cancer patients

More than 28 percent of diabetics are affected by neuropathy, which dulls small sensory organs.

Sitting in his office in the basement of Diehl Hall is William Kennedy. The neurology professor has awards and honors hanging on every open spot on the wall, but today, his concern is on the smallest of things.

Kennedy is studying neuropathy, a functioning disorder of certain nerves. He’s currently working with the fifth prototype of a device he’s used in his research for about five years.

Neuropathy affects people with diabetes and those who’ve gone through chemotherapy, among others, Kennedy said. He hopes to use his research to study how neuropathy affects diabetics.

More than 28 percent of diabetics are affected by neuropathy, according to the Neuropathy Association.

“We’re trying to learn about the nerves to see if the nerves are normal,” he said.

Sitting on the desk in front of Kennedy is a small, rectangular board, on which there are nine sets of five colored dots. One dot in each set has a bump about the size of a micron, or one-thousandth of an inch.

Test subjects run a finger across each set of circles and tell Kennedy which dot contains the bump, testing the sensitivity of the finger’s nerves, he said.

The more accurate the subject is in indentifying the bumps, the better his or her nerves function.

Running along the ridges of the finger are small sensory organs. Kennedy said the sense of touch is generated when anything runs across those sensors, even a bump smaller than a micron.

Kennedy said the goal of his research is to identify neuropathy in patients, something that Don Simone, a professor in the department of diagnostic and biological sciences, said is lacking.

“There is nothing that is really very precise and fast for determining the kind of precision that we hope to be able to with these bumps,” he said.

More than 30 percent of neuropathy cases have no direct cause, according to the Neuropathy Association. Another 30 percent are caused by diabetes.

Certain drugs used in chemotherapy can also trigger the condition, Kennedy said.

Simone said the study could be used to determine “at what stage do the nerves start to get effected by the chemotherapy.”

“This could be a test of determining when that begins to occur,” he said.

At that point, Kennedy said there are options to help nerves recover, but they haven’t been extensively studied.

A European study on possible treatments was canceled after a year, Kennedy said.

“They didn’t know how to judge if they improved or not,” he said.

The next step in studying neuropathy is to look at toes, Kennedy said.

Toes are harder to study because everyone has abnormalities in toe nerves, he said.

“We beat up our feet,” he said.

Kennedy said the study is more relaxed than his other work.

“We’re having fun with this because most of the stuff we do is so technical,” he said. “This is so simple.”

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