Scientists have made a key discovery that could lead to new treatment for spinal cord injuries, says a leading medical research charity.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and King’s College London have developed ways in which to boost nerve regeneration in the brain and spinal cord, and bring back lost neurological function.
The study, funded by Action Research and the International Spinal Research Trust, is an exciting breakthrough in the quest for spinal cord repair.
Lead researcher, Dr James Fawcett of the Cambridge University Centre for Brain Repair says: ‘Repairing spinal cords will involve several treatments being used together. This new technique is the basis for one of these treatments’
Cord injury affects 1000 patients per year in the UK and 10,000 in the USA. The average age of injury is 19, but patients have an almost normal life expectancy.
Ongoing research and the high-profile case of paralysed actor, Christopher Reeve, has generated widespread interest and expectation. Indeed, some scientists claim that in five to ten years, it may be possible to partially repair spinal injuries.
However, the key to treating these disabling conditions is finding a way to make the damaged nerve fibres regenerate.
A major problem facing neurologists is that damage to the brain and spinal cord is permanent, and is not reversed by normal healing processes. The damaged nerve fibres do not re-grow, meaning communication with other nerve cells is lost. This leads to the paralysis and loss of sensation that devastates the lives of patients.
Dr Fawcett says that one of the reasons why regeneration fails is because scar tissue forms at the injury site, and the scar produces particular molecules that block nerve fibre regeneration.
The Action Researchers found that when they added a bacterial enzyme called chondroitinase, it digested some of the main inhibitory molecules and made the scar tissue less restrictive.
Although the benefits of this treatment have previously been shown in tissue culture experiments, it’s the first time it has been used to promote nerve regeneration through the injured central nervous system (CNS).
The team formed a collaboration with King’s College, London, for further studies. The enzyme was injected into rats with injured spinal cords, and when the researchers gave them sensory and motor tests the rats appeared to have reclaimed much lost neurological function. Animals with control injections showed little recovery.
Dr Fawcett and his group are now hopeful their techniques could be applied to humans. He added: ‘This is the first demonstration that treatment with chondroitinase can promote neurological recovery after injury. This opens up the possibility of various types of treatment aimed at the enzyme being useful for patients with spinal injuries and other CNS injuries.’
Currently, patients do not receive treatment to promote nerve regeneration after cord injury. The results arising from the Action Research grant - which is worth more than £64,000 - will shortly be published in Nature Neuroscience and may now form a key part of the numerous spinal cord treatments designed for the first human clinical trials.
Action Research, which is fast approaching its 50th anniversary, is funding a variety of other studies focusing on nerve regeneration, injury, and repair, and preventing chronic pain, as part of its overall commitment to overcoming disease and disability.
The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research. Visit the website at www.action.org.uk
For further information, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes for Editors:
*Action Research funded £64,246 towards the project. The study was also part funded by the International Spinal Research Trust and the Wellcome Trust.
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