Secondary damage (protection of intact cells)
A spinal cord injury is followed by a massive breakdown of neuronal and supporting cells (known as glial cells) around the site of injury. This area of research aims to prevent the secondary damage and therefore preserve more functions for those affected.
Spinal cord injury is accompanied by the release of substances that block the renewed growth of nerves. The aim is to find, analyse and eliminate these substances known as natural growth inhibitors. In the last few years major advancements have been made in this area of research. Additionally it is important to understand the mechanisms underlying the reorganization of the spinal circuitry and interconnections.
When an adult nerve fibre in the central nervous system is completely severed, its ability to regrow is very restricted. Wings for Life funds projects that searching for ways to stimulate nerves to regenerate and regrow.
This area of research aims to replace destroyed tissue by the transplantation of cells and/or biomaterials. Very promising approaches focus on the use of stem cells or prosthetic biomaterials to repair injured spinal cord tissue.
Remyelination (insulation of nerve fibres)
Injured nerve fibres lose their protective cover, known as the myelin sheath. Like an electric wire that loses its insulation, the demyelinated nerve fibres lose their ability to properly transmit signals. Wings for Life supports research that aims to restore this protective sheath (remyelination) and to improve nerve cell function.
A number of preclinical studies report positive results, like enhanced growth of nerve fibres and a better behavioral outcome. However, we currently lack imaging techniques to monitor the changes in the spinal cord tissue in vivo. This fact makes it difficult to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and to compare the results. Wings for Life is doing pioneering work in this field by funding studies aiming to develop better in vivo imaging techniques.
Research projects in this area are not focused on direct restoration of the injured nervous system, but on the improvement of the functional deficits and thus improving the affected individual's quality of life. In this field, Wings for Life funds projects aimed at restoring bladder function and the treatment of neuropathic pain, and at developing new rehabilitation methods, to name but a few examples.