Some lucky mice are learning how to walk again after receiving a “breakthrough” spinal cord treatment. Researchers believe it could be used to develop a potentially life-saving treatment for humans suffering from paralysis.
That’s good news for the 300,000 Americans living with a spinal cord injury. Currently, less than 3% of these patients recover even basic physical functions, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. But this new treatment could be a game-changer.
According to the study, recently published in the journal Science, researchers injected a gel containing nanofibers into the spinal cords of several mice suffering from paralysis. The nanofibers mimicked the behaviors of spinal cord cells and “danced” to elicit a response from cell receptors, which caused them to move.
These new cell connectors help restore damaged pathways between nerve cells, called axons, allowing them to grow back better.
Researchers wrote that by using bioactive signals to trigger nerve receptors, the treatment improves severely injured spinal cords in five key ways:
- The nanofibers help regenerate the severed axons
- It diminishes the amount of scar tissue, which can create a physical barrier to regeneration and repair
- It helps reform myelin, the insulating layer of axons that is important in transmitting electrical signals efficiently
- It forms functional blood vessels that can deliver nutrients to cells at the injury site
- And increases the number of motor neurons that survive
Once the treatment does its job, the nanofibers biodegrade into nutrients for the cells after about 12 weeks. They completely disappear from the body without leaving noticeable side-effects.
The researchers note that a single injection of the gel was enough to reverse paralysis in the mice. The animals regained the ability to walk in just four weeks.
In addition to reversing paralysis, the treatment leads to the production of healthy cells, which can help heal other areas of the body related to the nervous system, including blood vessels that feed neurons.
Most people with a spinal cord injury won’t fully recover, even though they tend to accumulate millions of dollars in healthcare costs throughout their lifetime. Studies show around 30% of these patients will need to be re-hospitalized following their injury. Life expectancy for those living with a spinal cord injury hasn’t improved since the 1980s.
The current treatment options range from surgery to steroids to deal with the pain and physical therapy, but none of them produce the desired results, ideally a complete reversal of paralysis.
In a statement to the press, Samuel I. Stupp, professor of medical engineering at Northwestern University and lead author of the study, said, “I wanted to make a difference on the outcomes of spinal cord injury. Our research aims to find a therapy that can prevent individuals from becoming paralyzed after major trauma or disease.”
He added that “new science to address spinal cord injury could have an impact on strategies for neurodegenerative diseases and stroke.”
Stupp spoke about the challenge of repairing damaged nerve pathways, which can lead to a loss of communication between the brain and different parts of the body.
“For decades, this has remained a major challenge for scientists because our body’s central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, does not have any significant capacity to repair itself after injury or after the onset of a degenerative disease,” Stupp explained.
However, he referred to his team’s success with these so-called “dancing molecules,” which mimic the matrix of the spinal cord to restore the connection with receptors.
“Receptors in neurons and other cells constantly move around,” Stupp said. “The key innovation in our research, which has never been done before, is to control the collective motion of more than 100,000 molecules within our nanofibers. By making the molecules move, ‘dance’ or even leap temporarily out of these structures, known as supramolecular polymers, they are able to connect more effectively with receptors.”
Stupp added that his team had to adjust the motion of the molecules within the nanofiber network to make them more agile.
“Given that cells themselves and their receptors are in constant motion, you can imagine that molecules moving more rapidly would encounter these receptors more often,” Stupp said. “If the molecules are sluggish and not as ‘social,’ they may never come into contact with the cells.”
With more research, he believes this treatment could be used to help with other neurological diseases, including ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
They aren’t wasting any time when it comes to seeking regulatory approval.
“We are going straight to the FDA to start the process of getting this new therapy approved for use in human patients, who currently have very few treatment options,” Stupp said in the statement.
“Beyond that, our fundamental discovery about controlling the motion of molecular assemblies to enhance cell signaling could be applied universally across biomedical targets,” he added.