Thanks to a gift from the Merkin Family Foundation, Johns Hopkins Medicine today announced plans for a new virtual center to study peripheral neuropathy, a debilitating nerve disorder that affects some 20 million people in the United States. The gift will also fund the development of innovative nerve regenerative therapies to combat the disorder.

Prospective research at the Johns Hopkins Merkin Peripheral Neuropathy and Nerve Regeneration Center will refine understanding of the disease’s underlying causes and progression, and will accelerate advancement of new techniques for restoring damaged nerve tissues.

The Merkin Family Foundation was founded by Richard Merkin, M.D., president, founder and chief executive officer of the Heritage Provider Network.

“I’m very pleased to establish the Johns Hopkins Merkin Peripheral Neuropathy and Nerve Regeneration Center, providing these research teams with new and exciting opportunities to change how and why nerve loss occurs, opening doors for future discoveries,” said Dr. Merkin.

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the many conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system, which is the vast communication network that sends signals between the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and all other parts of the body. It can be caused by traumatic injuries, infections, metabolic problems, genetic predisposition or exposure to toxins. The most common cause is diabetes. Patients affected by the disorder often report stabbing, burning or tingling pain, loss of sensation or loss of muscle strength.

“The Johns Hopkins Merkin Center will create a platform for speeding up the research in this area,” said Ahmet Hoke, M.D., Ph.D., the center director and professor of neurology and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We are looking forward to investing in pilot projects to stimulate research and attract new investigators to the field.”

Along with the goal of better comprehending how peripheral neuropathy arises and the mechanisms by which it impacts the nervous system, the center will focus on nerve regeneration as a primary means of treatment.

“Few research studies are currently looking at how peripheral nerves can regenerate,” Hoke explained. “And especially not at the molecular level as we intend to do.” 

Hoke says he hopes to open the virtual center by July 1. At that time, he will accept and consider research proposals. Hoke is optimistic that the center’s research will fuel new drug discoveries; facilitate translational and clinical studies; and integrate patient experiences with the development of new therapies and diagnostic tools, such as finding biomarkers that identify nerve degeneration and regeneration.

Hoke says the center will recruit experts from various disciplines to create a research community with a highly diverse body of knowledge.

“I am confident that this environment will offer an excellent professional opportunity for brilliant young scientists, trainees and junior faculty at the stages of their career where they are most likely to generate new ideas,” he adds.