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Dancing molecules


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The ability to naturally regenerate is very limited after a spinal cord injury, especially for nerve cells. For the acute SCI phase, a research group led by Samuel Stupp (Northwestern University, USA) has developed a new therapy based on a gel, that most recently showed outstanding results in animal experiment. Four weeks after injecting the new substance into the spinal cord, severely paralyzed mice were able to walk again. The injection was done 24 hours after injury, to mimic the delay that normally occurs in human before they could receive a treatment.

The new product
The gel mimics the matrix that is normally found around cells, providing a scaffold that helps cells to grow. It consists of molecular chains, carrying signals at each end that resemble one of two natural proteins. The first signal prompts damaged neurons to regenerate (via interaction with the β1-integrin receptor). The second mediates proliferation and survival signals (via interaction with the FGF2 receptor).

The secret behind this new substance is its intensified motion. Cell receptors, which are the ones that respond to regeneration signals, are constantly moving around. In fact, they are literally drifting on the cell surface. The gel assembles in a dancing matrix, meaning that it is constantly vibrating to increase its chances to contact the moving receptors.

The biological effect
The team found that the gel helped regenerate the severed ends of neurons and reduced the amount of scar tissue at the injury site. It also enhanced blood vessel growth, which provided more nutrients to the spinal cord cells. Further, the regeneration of myelin, the insulating layer of axons that is important in transmitting electrical signals, is increased.
After the gel performs its functions, it will biodegrade into nutrients for the surrounding tissue. Choosing a quite severe injury model, the research team was able to show a dramatic recovery in movements.

What’s next?
The researchers hope to begin human trials as soon as possible. They are in the process of contactingthe FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) to start the process of getting this new therapy approved for use in human patients. The Wings for Life foundation will be watching very carefully for future development and wishes the team the best of luck.

This study was published in the journal Science.

Source: Álvarez Z, Kolberg-Edelbrock AN, Sasselli IR, Ortega JA, Qiu R, Syrgiannis Z, Mirau PA, Chen F, Chin SM, Weigand S, Kiskinis E, Stupp SI. Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery from spinal cord injury. Science. 2021 Nov 12;374(6569):848-856. doi: 10.1126/science.abh3602. Epub 2021 Nov 11. PMID: 34762454.

You can find out more on the spinal cord and the influence of its damage on the human body in our basic-information. Wings for Life Glossary gives an understanding of scientific terms.