CHICAGO — Scientists say they've found a promising experimental treatment to repair the spinal cord after a severe injury. It could also work in people who have been paralyzed. The nanotechnology uses millions of moving molecules to reconnect nerves and could be a game changer in medicine.
“Spinal cord injury has been an enormous challenge for science over decades,” said Samuel Stupp, director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology at Northwestern University.
He says he and his team have successfully been able to regenerate severed nerves in the spinal cords of mice.
“It's injection of a liquid that upon contact with living tissue gels and therefore gets localized right at the site of injury,” said Stupp.
Videos provided by Northwestern show a paralyzed mouse before treatment. A single injection was administered to tissues surrounding the spinal cord. Just four weeks later, the mouse regained the ability to walk.
“Tiny nanoscale fibers that form a network that mimics the natural environment around neurons in the spinal cord,” explained Stupp. “New blood vessels are built, and they can feed the neurons that are damaged or severed so that they can regenerate their cables, their axons.”
Once injected, these synthetic nanofibers then communicate with cells to promote that regeneration.
“The therapy is based on peptide amphiphiles. Those are the molecules that make up the tiny fibers bearing the signals,” said Stupp.
The secret behind Stupp's breakthrough therapy is tuning the motion of these ‘dancing’ peptide molecules, so they can locate and effectively engage the constantly moving cellular receptors.
“What this does is it takes individual amino acids, and it links them up chemically to form the peptide chain,” said Mark Karver, director of the peptide synthesis core facility.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, nearly 18,000 people sustain a spinal cord injury in the U.S. each year. Less than 1% experience complete neurological recovery by the time they leave the hospital.
Currently, there is no other treatment that triggers the nerves in the spinal cord to reconnect.
“Within three or four weeks, five weeks, the therapy is biodegraded completely into nutrients that are needed by the cells that are being repaired or regenerated,” said Stupp.
The practical applications he says go beyond reversing paralysis. They could potentially be used to repair central nervous system tissues affected by other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s.
“The nature of the tissues is the same as the central nervous system, and we have used signals that are very effective in repair of those tissues,” said Stupp.
Without noticeable side effects, researchers think the therapy is so promising it could skip testing in large animal models and soon go straight to human clinical trials.