Residents with spinal cord injuries are acutely aware of how little medical science can do to help them truly heal. Once the spinal cord has been damaged, there is not much expectation of improvement. The focus is on living the healthiest life possible and coping with the physical challenges that often follow a spinal cord injury.
Scientists are hard at work to find a better answer for these patients. In fact, a research group recently developed a new technology that may be exactly what they’ve been hoping for.
The Challenge of Spinal Cord Injuries
The spinal cord isn’t very big – less than an inch wide – but it’s made up of a tight bundle of nerves with a very important function. These nerves carry all the messages traveling to and from the brain. Every movement begins as a nerve signal in the brain that shoots down the spinal cord to activate the action. Every sensation must travel back up this pathway to be registered by the brain. This is why a spinal cord injury can often result in paralysis and the loss of feeling.
Unlike other nerves in the body, the ones in the spinal cord and brain do not repair themselves well. When an injury disrupts this highway of nerve signals, not only is it unlikely to heal, but the inflammation caused by the trauma often inflicts even more damage to the tissue.
Following spinal cord injuries, it’s difficult to know how extensive the damage is until the inflammation subsides. When it does, patients are generally told that the function they are left with is all they will ever have. Physical therapy can help them cope with the loss of strength and motor control. However, there is very little hope for true improvement.
As noted, though, there is hope that may change in the near future.
Biomaterials to “Mend the Gap”
An international group of scientists at the University of British Columbia is working on a project called Mend the Gap. This ambitious effort brings together scientists, engineers, doctors, translation specialists, and the spinal cord injury community. They work together to search for new ways to heal spinal cord injuries.
One of the reasons this healing has been impossible so far is that the injury causes a gap between the functioning nerves on either side of the damage. There is also scar tissue in place, blocking the formation of new nerve tissue. This prevents the nerve tissue from growing across that gap, so even a small disruption of the spine causes a permanent loss of function.
To help new nerve tissue bridge that gap, the researchers have developed a biomaterial gel that can be injected into the injured site. This gel is able to conform to the unique shape of the damage. Ultimately, this gel will contain a mix of compounds to address the needs of a spinal cord injury, such as drugs that target scar tissue, and others that stimulate nerve growth.
The gel also contains tiny magnetic particles.
How It Works
Once the minute rods are in place, they can be moved with a magnet to align them in one direction. This creates lines of material that are a structure for nerves to follow as they grow. While the body works to generate new nerve tissue, the biomaterial gel is slowly absorbed by the body.
Injecting the gel will have to be extremely precise, so doctors can target the right area and avoid causing damage to the surrounding tissues. They will also have to adjust for the movement caused by breathing. To ensure that the injections are accurate, they will be done with the assistance of a surgical robot.
This new technology seems promising, but it isn’t quite ready to be used on patients.
Hope for the Future
The biomaterial gel is ready to move into preclinical trials, where researchers hope to gather enough data to start human trials. Their initial plan is to focus on patients who have suffered recent spinal cord injuries. However, they hope they will eventually be able to help people who have lived with these injuries for some time.
If this novel approach lives up to its promise, it will be a major step forward in truly treating spinal cord injuries. Scientists, as well as patients and their loved ones, are eager to see what the results will be.
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