There are over 300,000 Americans living with spinal cord injuries. Recently, a promising new treatment has been developed that could help them.
A team of scientists advanced a novel type of drug capable of enabling cells to regenerate. It has been reversing paralysis in mice that suffered spinal injuries, allowing them to walk once more with four weeks of treatment, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.
The team from Northwestern University will soon propose human trials to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“The aim of our research was to develop a translatable therapy that could be brought to the clinic to prevent individuals from becoming paralyzed after major trauma or disease,” said Samuel Stupp of Northwestern who led the study.
Finding a reliable cure for paralysis has been a goal for ages, and with modern medicine, advanced research into possible treatments exists.
🔹In recent tradition, some have relied on stem cells to generate new neurons.
🔹Others have used gene therapy to make the body produce specific proteins and aid nerve repair.
🔹Sometimes proteins are directly injected.
However, Stupp and the Northwestern team’s approach is a more engineering-oriented solution. They have been using nanofibers to mimic the serpentine architecture of the extracellular matrix, which is a network of molecules that surrounds the tissues known to support cell function.
These fibers used by the researchers are unbelievably thin. Each one is 10,000 times thinner than a single human hair. And it’s comprised of hundreds of thousands of peptides, which are bioactive molecules. Peptides send specific signals to trigger the regeneration of nerves.
This therapy took the form of a gel that was injected directly into the tissue wrapped around the spinal cords of several lab mice, 24 hours after researchers made a precise incision in the animals’ spines. The research team had to wait a full day post-incision because humans who suffer life-destroying spinal injuries from gunshots, traffic collisions, and other unfortunate events often experience substantial delays before treatment begins. And no treatment is good enough to bring humans back from the dead.
Four weeks after the treatment, the mice who’d received the treatment actually regained their ability to walk nearly as normally as they did before their injuries.
Those that didn’t get the treatment remained paralyzed. But they might be the lucky ones, since the ones who could walk again were then put down so the research team could open them up to examine the effects of therapy down to the cellular level. And, looking at the results, the team discovered that substantial improvements had taken hold in the mice’s spinal cords.
🔹The severed extensions of neurons known as axions had regenerated. Scar tissue often functions as a physical barrier to regeneration, but in the mice who received the treatment, it was also diminished.
🔹The insulating layer of axons known as myelin, which is crucial for sending electric signals, had also reformed, and new blood vessels that transfer nutrients to injured cells had come into being, enabling more motor neurons to persist.
Neuron receptors are naturally in continual motion, said Stupp in their report. This means increasing the motion of therapeutic molecules inside the nanofibers helped them connect to moving targets with greater efficacy.
This is the first gel of its kind, and it could lead to the next generation of a class of medicines called “supramolecular drugs,” which describes the therapy’s method of assembling a great number of molecules instead of relying on one, alone.
While more animal testing is needed before human trials, this could potentially have life-changing consequences for the nearly 300,000 people living with spinal cord injuries, and that’s just in the United States. The lifespan of people with these injuries is typically shorter, and hasn’t increased since the 1980s, so there’s no time to lose for this potentially revolutionary discovery.
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