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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Fresh hope for spinal injury victims

An injury to the spinal cord may be caused by disease or a sporting or road traffic accident. The result can be paralysis, with the impact of such an injury turning lives upside down. Those individuals and their families living with the disability must face many challenges while coming to terms with the impairment and in rebuilding their lives. Now there is fresh hope in the form of an EU-funded project.

European researchers have, for the first time, demonstrated the presence of neural stem cells in an adult human spinal cord. The finding, which is published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, is expected to have implications for the way spinal injuries and degenerative motor neuron diseases are treated.

The spinal cord is a long, thin, tubular bundle of nerves that is an extension of the central nervous system from the brain, and is enclosed in and protected by the bony vertebral column. Spinal nerves carry information in the form of nerve impulses about what is happening inside and outside the body to and from the brain.

If the spinal cord is damaged in an accident, the sections below the injury will be cut off from the circuit of information to and from the brain. This means that all nerves — and all body parts — linked to these areas of the spinal cord will also be disconnected from the brain and will stop functioning.

New strategies for spinal injuries

It is estimated that some 330 000 people suffer from spinal cord injuries in Europe, with more than 10 000 new cases occurring each year. Young people between the age of 25 and 30 are most affected by these injuries.

Spinal cord injuries have long been regarded as irreversible, leading to permanent paralysis and a lifetime of disability. This is largely due to the alleged inability of the central nervous system (CNS) to regenerate.

Funded within the framework of the EU-funded RESCUE (Research Endeavor for Spinal Cord in United Europe) project, researchers at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) studied different therapeutic strategies for spinal injuries. Close attention was paid to the possibility of using adult stem cells to treat spinal lesions.

To date, adult stem cells had been ruled out as a therapeutic answer to spinal injuries. This is because adult stems cells in tissue, unlike embryonic stems cells, cannot, as a rule, produce a type of tissue other than their own. Furthermore, although the presence of neural stem cells in the brain and the spinal cord of adult rodents were shown several years ago, it had not previously been possible, on the strength of current techniques, to detect such cells in the human spinal cord.

Adult stem cells come to the rescue

This is where the INSERM team steps in. Using electron microscopy and the expression of neural precursor cell markers, the researchers were able to show the presence of adult neural stem cells in a human spinal cord.

Then, by cultivating these cells in vitro, the researchers were able to demonstrate how they could be differentiated not only into neurons, but also into glial cells. These are the cells that provide support and nutrition, and participate in signal transmission in the nervous system.

The project's finding has far-reaching implications. It is expected that these cells could be used to regenerate neurons and glial cells lost in spinal injuries or in neurodegenerative pathologies, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

'The therapeutic interest of so-called adult stem cells is now generally acknowledged by the scientific community. Although there is still a long way to go, this work constitutes a major step forward for all the pathologies affecting the motor neurons, for which no treatment exists at the present time,' says Alain Privat, Research Director at INSERM.

Source: CORDIS News

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Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top