New hope for spinal cord injury treatment

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A unique new study in the US has discovered that a specific type of human cell called an astrocyte could hold the key to a new treatment for spinal cord injury and other central nervous disorders.

At the moment experiments on rats using the human cell has shown great improvements, not just in repairing damage to the nervous system but in helping the animals to regain some movement.

Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

The research is a major breakthrough for spinal cord injury treatment and for the first time has made the ‘step up’ to human level after previous research using only rat astrocytes showed promise. The researchers have been very impressed with the robustness of the effect of the human cell transplants into rats, claiming that no previous research has been as consistent and strong as their results.

The research tested 2 types of human fetal glial precursor cells against each other and found that whilst one type of human astrocyte promoted significant recovery in the animals, the other did not.

Researchers also found that transplanting the cells directly into the spinal cord injured rats did not aid recovery.

According to Mark Noble, director of the University of Rochester Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, "This study is a critical step toward the development of improved therapies for spinal cord injury, both in providing very effective human astrocytes and in demonstrating that it is essential to first create the most beneficial cell type in tissue culture before transplantation. It is clear that we cannot rely on the injured tissue to induce the most useful differentiation of these precursor cells."

When the ‘correct’ human astrocyte cell – the BMP – was discovered it was found to provide extensive benefit, including up to a 70% increase in protection of injured spinal cord neurons, support for nerve fibre growth and the recovery of movement. The second type of astrocyte – CNTF – did not have these results.

"It is estimated that astrocytes make up the vast majority of all cell types in the human brain and spinal cord, and provide multiple different types of support to neurons and other cells of the central nervous system," said Jeannette Davies, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-lead author of the study. "These multiple functions are likely to all be contributing to the ability of the right human astrocytes to repair the injured spinal cord."

The researchers will now move to the next stage with an aim to be able to implement the approach in humans with complex spinal cord injuries.

"Studies like this one bring increasing hope for our patients with spinal cord injuries," said Jason Huang, M.D., associate professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Chief of Neurosurgery at Highland Hospital. "Treating spinal cord injuries will require a multi-disciplinary approach, but this study is a promising one showing the importance of modifying human astrocytes prior to transplantation and has significant clinical implications."

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