Repairing Damaged Spinal Cords
Category: Spinal Cord Injury | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: June 26, 2018
When you break a bone, the two fragments slowly heal back together and full, painless function is restored. However, the same can’t be said for your spinal cord. If you damage or sever your spinal cord at a given level, you may lose part or all function of your body below that point. Despite advances in medicine, we haven’t yet been able to restore function after a paralyzation.
With that said, we may be inching closer to being able to do just that. According to research published in Brain – A Journal of Neurology, researchers exploring gene therapy found that they were able to help paralyzed rats move their legs and paws again.
Gene Therapy and the Spinal Cord
When a person suffers a devastating spinal cord injury, scar tissue ends up blocking the nerve cells on the spine from communicating with one another and the muscles they control. During the new gene therapy research, medical experts were able to break down that scar tissue over the course of a few weeks. This allowed some nerve signals to make their way downline. Researchers found that some rats were eventually able to climb ladder and grab and hold a sugar cube, moves that they couldn’t do prior to therapy.
Researcher Elizabeth Bradbury said in an interview with The Guardian that the potential restoration of function in hands, should the study eventually be completed on a human population, would be monumental.
“Recovering the use of hands is the top priority for the majority of individuals living with spinal cord injuries,” said Bradbury. It would enable them to do everyday tasks such as washing and dressing independently, picking up a coffee cup, and would be life changing.”
Currently, the best we can do for individuals with severe spinal cord injuries is targeted physical therapy and prosthetic limbs, but reversing nerve damage would be a gamechanger. The study still has a number of hurdles to clear with the FDA before it would even be considered as a study possibility on humans, but it’s a step in the right direction.
One problem researchers ran into during the study was that the rats’ immune system tried to eliminate the gene therapy mechanism when it was introduced, but they were able to add a “stealth” component to prevent the immune system from reducing the effects of the therapy. Although rats and humans move using similar gene sequencing processes, there’s no guarantee that the system that worked in rats would be able to be reproduced in a human population. Researchers are currently looking to gain FDA approval to attempt the study using a larger species.
Even if it all goes to plan, we’re still years away from the therapy potentially being used to restore a human spinal cord, but as medical science continues to improve, anything is possible.