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A breakthrough treatment in regenerative medicine has made it possible for paralyzed mice to walk normally again, portending a life-changing therapeutic for humans with spinal cord injuries and paralysis, according to a new report.
Northwestern University scientists who authored the newly-published research injected a gel into tissue surrounding the spinal cords of lab mice 24 hours after an incision was made in their spines, Daily Mail reported. The delay between the cutting of the spinal cord and subsequent treatment was done in order to represent an average of time that humans with sudden spinal traumas ( e.g. from car accidents and gunshots) might endure before treatment.
Miraculously, the mice were able to walk again within four weeks after receiving the treatment, and at a level near their abilities before the trauma. Mice who did not receive the treatment did not recover from their injuries and remained paralyzed.
“The aim of our research was to develop a translatable therapy that could be brought to the clinic to prevent individuals from becoming paralyzed after major trauma or disease,” said Northwestern’s Samuel Stupp, who led the study.
Watch the fascinating video:
(Video: The Straits Times/YouTube)
Stupp is urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve human trials because the nervous system across mammal species is very similar in construction and processes, saying that “there is nothing out there to help spinal cord injury patients, and this is a huge human problem.”
A cure for paralysis has been an elusive goal in the field of medicine, akin to the search for cures of many types of cancer. Stem cell research has offered some glimmers of hope, but along with that comes controversy over the means of achievement, as it often necessitates the use of fetal cells and tissue.
Stupp’s team, on the other hand, used nanofibers to replicate the architecture of the “extracellular matrix,” which is a naturally occurring network of molecules surrounding tissue that support cell structure.
Each fiber is about 10,000 times narrower than a human hair, and they are made up of hundreds of thousands of bioactive molecules known as peptides that transmit signals, promoting the regeneration of nerves.
The mice that were injected with nanofibers showed dramatic improvements to their spinal cords, Stupp said. As well, the drug reduced the amount of naturally occurring scar tissue which necessarily hinders the regeneration of tissue, thereby increasing the efficacy of the treatment. Receptors in neurons are naturally in constant motion, Stupp explained, and increasing the motion of the therapeutic molecules within the nanofibers helps them better connect with their moving targets.
The gel developed by the scientists is the first of its kind, and could likely usher in a new generation of medicines known as “supramolecular drugs,” labeled as such because the therapy is an assembly of many molecules rather than a single molecule, said Stupp. He is hopeful that rapid approval for human studies will eliminate the need for further animal testing, such as that with primate subjects.
Right now, nearly 300,000 people are living with a spinal cord injury in the United States alone. Their lifespan is shorter than people without spinal injury, and despite modern research and development, that estimation has shown no record of improvement since the 1980s.
“The challenge will be how the FDA will look at these therapies because they’re completely new,” Stupp concluded.
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