When the spinal cord is partially damaged, the body can often repair itself naturally, allowing the person to regain some or all of their motor function. However, when the spinal cord is completely severed, there is no natural repair and the person is left paralyzed.
Researchers have long been working on ways to promote nerve regeneration and restore motor function after complete spinal cord injuries. However, it has been difficult to identify the specific conditions that are necessary for successful regeneration.
In a new study published in the journal Science, researchers at .NeuroRestore, the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering, UCLA, and Harvard Medical School have used state-of-the-art equipment to identify the specific neurons and nerve fibers that are involved in natural spinal cord repair after partial spinal cord injury.
The researchers found that a specific type of neuron, called a V2a interneuron, is essential for natural spinal cord repair. These neurons are located in the spinal cord and connect to other neurons on both sides of the body.
The researchers also found that the V2a interneurons must reconnect to their natural targets on the other side of the spinal cord in order for motor function to be restored.
“Our observations not only exposed the specific axons that must regenerate, but also revealed that these axons must reconnect to their natural targets to restore motor function,” said Jordan Squair, the study’s first author.
This is a significant discovery that could lead to new strategies for repairing damaged spinal cords and restoring motor function after complete spinal cord injuries.
In the second part of their study, the researchers developed a multipronged gene therapy to promote nerve regeneration and restore motor function in mice with anatomically complete spinal cord injuries.
The gene therapy involved:
- Activating growth programs in the identified neurons to regenerate their nerve fibers.
- Upregulating specific proteins to support the neurons’ growth through the lesion core.
- Administering guidance molecules to attract the regenerating nerve fibers to their natural targets below the injury.
“We were inspired by nature when we designed a therapeutic strategy that replicates the spinal-cord repair mechanisms occurring spontaneously after partial injuries,” said Squair.
The researchers found that the gene therapy was successful in restoring motor function in the mice. The mice were able to walk again, and their gait patterns resembled those of mice with partial spinal cord injuries.
This is the first time that gene therapy has been shown to restore motor function in mice with complete spinal cord injuries. The findings suggest that gene therapy could be a promising new treatment for people with spinal cord injuries.
However, more research is needed to ensure that the gene therapy is safe and effective in humans. The researchers are currently planning clinical trials to test the gene therapy in people with spinal cord injuries.
What this means for people with spinal cord injuries
The success of this gene therapy in mice is an exciting development for people with spinal cord injuries. If the gene therapy is shown to be safe and effective in humans, it could offer a new hope for people who have lost function due to spinal cord injury.
However, it is important to note that this is still early-stage research and it will likely be many years before any new treatments are available to patients.
What can people with spinal cord injuries do now?
If you have a spinal cord injury, it is important to work with your doctors and therapists to develop a personalized rehabilitation plan. This plan may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other treatments to help you regain as much function as possible.
There are also a number of clinical trials underway that are testing new treatments for spinal cord injuries. If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, talk to your doctor.
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