Over the last two months, spinal cord injury research has shown noticeable progress. Slow and steady wins the race, we’ve been told, and the rate of advances made in the SCI research can be summed up in these two adjectives. Researchers leading the projects are optimistic and confident that their efforts will continue yield valuable results.
Just over a month ago and for the first time ever, scientists managed to direct stem cell neurons to regenerate the tissue in rats’ corticospinal tracts, which control the motor functions of the body. “The corticospinal projection is the most important motor system in humans. It has not been successfully regenerated before. Many have tried, many have failed — including us, in previous efforts,” said Mark Tuszynski, MD, PhD, professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine Department of Neurosciences. Following the success, the scientists seem to be more encouraged to continue their SCI research and eventually apply it to humans who need proper functioning of corticospinal axons for all voluntary motions.
A 40-year quest to try and treat paralysis caused by a spinal cord injury produced positive results accompanied by substantial evidence. “Spinal cord injury may no longer mean a lifelong sentence of paralysis,” said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Reggie Edgerton uses electric currents to activate damaged spinal cords and has helped a number of men regain control of their inner organs, sexual function, stand, and even walk. Mr. Edgerton would not accept the general opinion that the spinal cord does nothing but act as a courier for the messages exchanged by the brain and the limbs. He proved that it is also able to process information, generate patterns, adapt, and learn. What is astonishing is that patients quickly respond to the treatment and his belief is that it was not due to the new cell growth but due to providing constant “reminders” to the spinal cord to do what it used to. The “complete” classification is not being used by a growing number of researchers anymore, proving that little connectivity to the brain can be restored.
Against the common belief, researchers found that glial scar tissue enhances the nerve cell regeneration for the regrowth of damaged cells following a spinal cord injury. Researchers used fluorescent imaging to track axons approach across the injured tissue with and without a scar. There were no differences in the regrowth of nerve cells but the mice with the glial scarring experienced a regrowth of the stalled spinal axons past the scars.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared Ekso Bionics Holdings Inc. to market its GT robotic exoskeleton to help treat spinal cord injuries and patients who suffered from a stroke. This exoskeleton enables patients to stand up and walk. It provides most benefits in the stages of early recovery. Worldwide approximately 375,000 spinal cord injuries happen every year and 17 million strokes. Most of these people will require assistance to a certain extent and exoskeletons like this one are on the way to become a standard practice in institutions all over the world.
There has been some success treating suppressed immunity caused by a spinal cord injury. People with serious SCIs develop induced suppression syndrome (SCI-IDS) and in most occasions leading to additional problems. “Infection, a consequence of immune suppression, is the leading cause of death for people with spinal cord injuries,” said Yutaka Yoshida, PhD, co- author and a scientist in the Division of Developmental Biology at Cincinnati Children’s. To help fight this issue, the researchers used mice for testing chemo genetics, which provided them favorable control over a number of cell-signaling processes. They managed to reverse the immune suppressive reflex in mice but seem adamant that testing on humans is still impossible.
Lastly, the research on protein in neuron sprouting showed some interesting and encouraging results. Scientists presume it might be used in treating spinal cord injury, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease patients. CD2AP an adaptor protein forms a multi-protein complex and guides it towards neuron growth, binding only the needed proteins on the way. The process is a two-edged sword because the axons’ structure is changed, and if too much sprouting is done, it can be harmful. “Through targeting this molecule, we could help the body’s natural healing process to coordinate the appropriate growth,” said Dr. Harrison. Scientists are on a path to discovery of different nerve growth modes, controlling different growth types. This is crucial because it relates to training that enhances the spinal cord injury growth factor environment, and these are required for the plasticity of axons. Ben Harrison PhD has a post doctorate from the Department of Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology at U of L and will continue his research towards the development of a medicine that nourishes nerve growth for SCI sufferers.
No one can state with certainty when there will be a cure for spinal cord injury induced paralysis, but one thing is for sure, slow and steady always wins the race.