How do cures happen? You must ask yourself, “would you prefer that spinal cord injury treatments be available within the next years, or would you rather wait another ten or twenty years?” What we can do, what we know and the actions we can take right now.
Every neuron is embedded in multiple giant networks; they connect with cells from the brain, they connect with each other, and they connect with cells out in the body. The networks develop both before birth and deplore the first few months afterwards; they’re meant to be permanent. There’re unbelievably complex. Most importantly, with the right stimulation and training after injury, those networks can be rewired. They can be rewired in such a way that the phrase “complete injury” is meaningless.
In the spinal cord, the most basic unit is a certain type of cell called a neuron. Without these there is no spinal cord or brain. Neurons have the job of listening and responding. They do this with short extensions called dendrites and long ones called axons. There are three types of neurons – motor, sensory and brain. The name of the neural network in the lumbar part of the spinal cord is the Central Pattern Generator (CPG). The CPG is millions of attached neurons that are linked inside a couple segments of the cord. At the same time these neurons also have many other jobs and they are contributing to the neural network as well.
One of the strategies for treating spinal cord injury is the idea of replacing lost cells. Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) can be tricked into turning itself into one of the cell types needed. MSC’s are small collections hidden in the marrow of our bones, fat, and certain muscles. Another place that they are commonly found are in the blood that flows through human umbilical cords. Scientists have spent many years testing the effects of these MSC on damaged spinal cords of lab rats, yet to date there are no substantial findings. Olfactory Ensheathing Cells (OEC) might be used to repair a broken spinal cord. The surface called the Olfactory Epithelium has an entire layer made up of cells and these cells make it possible for the body to replace neurons.
The University of Miami has an institution called The Miami Project and it is a significant part of the Miller School of Medicine. Over 300 people work there and they are all focused on one goal – finding a way to end paralysis. The Miami project has focused and uncovered the benefits of one particular therapy- the use of Schwann cells in human patients. Miami Project’s took place in the summer of 2014 and involved the transplant of Schwann cells into the first three newly injured patients. A few months later in October, they received the good news that that the FDA would try the cells in patients with chronic injuries. The cells that were transplanted in the first three patients did not come from other peoples donated tissues, but rather from their own bodies.
There are currently two FDA-approved clinical trails taking place, exploring cell-based options. People with chronic spinal cord injuries are having neural stem cells implanted. The cells they are being given originated in a 16-20 week human fetus. This is because during the early stages of human development, the cells of an embryo are sorting themselves into groups, but for a brief period of time, they are not categorized, they are simply neural stem cells. They continue to grow and turn into the basic elements of a properly functioning spinal cord.
A spine implant is four things:
1. A little remote control that you can hold in your hand
2. A pulse generator that’s sewn into a pocket under your skin
3. An extension wire
4. An array of electrodes with leads going to the wire
How can you help? If you want to understand the basic biology of the injured cord, and what the basic approaches scientists are taking to heal, mend or bypass the nervous system, you need to know what you as a non-scientist can do to speed things along.
For more information about paralysis and its effects click here.
Canadian Research Influencers
• Canadian Institutes for Health Research. CIHR Best Practices for Protecting Privacy in Health Research. September 2005.
• Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Access to Research Results: Guiding Principles.
• Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Integrity in Research and Scholarship.