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Despite efforts to better manage spinal cord injury effects, results have been far from rewarding over the years. In the U.S. today, there are roughly 18,000 spinal cord injuries recorded annually. This ultimately results in more than 300,000 people struggling with related deficits thereafter in the country. A number of treatments have been tried to improve the secondary paralysis that is often present. This includes spinal cord implant treatments that either stimulate portions of the remaining spinal cord or replace damage cells. These past attempts have been of limited value. But now a different approach to spinal cord implant therapy looks to be quite promising.

Researchers at the University of Tel Aviv recently reported some very favorable findings. Using personalized medicine strategies, they developed a new approach to spinal cord implant treatments. Using this method, they were able to markedly improve existing paralysis. Improvements not only occurred in acute spinal cord injury but in chronic cases as well. Naturally, this offers great hope to the millions worldwide who suffer from spinal cord injury. But it also has the potential to offer new therapies involving many other health disorders as well. Their research highlights why personalized medicine is likely the way of the future.

“Individuals injured at a very young age are destined to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, bearing all the social, financial and health-related costs of paralysis. Our goal is to produce personalized spinal cord implants for every paralyzed person, enabling regeneration of the damaged tissue with no risk of rejection.” – Professor Tal Dvir, Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology

An Innovative Spinal Cord Implant Approach

When it comes to spinal cord injury treatments, many investigators have tried spinal cord implant approaches. However, many have involved electrical stimulators that hope to promote regrowth of nerves through the damaged area. Others have implanted various biomaterials and mature cells in hopes of improvement. Also, some are now exploring robotic exoskeletons for spinal cord injury. Unfortunately, these methods have yielded limited benefits. In some cases, the body’s immune response prevents these tissues from thriving. Likewise, supporting tissues fail to provide a functional framework for nerve repair. These setbacks, however, is what led researchers to try a new technique.

(Read more about the use of robotic exoskeletons in medical settings in this Bold Business deep dive.)

Biomedical engineers in Tel Aviv decided to try a different method. They took a small biopsy of cells from the belly fat of mice. They then used genetic engineering techniques to reprogram these cells into more primitive embryonic cells. Notably, embryonic cells have greater potential to develop into any cell type, including spinal cord cells. The researchers subsequently separated these cells from the surrounding tissues, and create a hydrogel out of the non-cellular material. This hydrogel was then used as a supportive network where the embryonic cells might thrive. The spinal cord implant material thus consisted of this concoction, which was notably specific to the individual mouse.

“This is the first instance in the world in which implanted engineered human tissues have generated recovery in an animal model for long-term chronic paralysis – which is the most relevant model for paralysis treatments in humans.” – Professor Tal Dvir

Promising Results for Spinal Cord Injury Patients

According to recent research summaries, the scientists placed the spinal cord implant material in the injured area of different mice. Some of the mice had suffered acute spinal cord injury while others had chronic paralysis from prior damage. They then compared the mice’s ability ambulate weeks later and compared these two groups to untreated mice with spinal cord damage. Their findings demonstrated that the mice with acute injury were walking within 3 months after the spinal cord implant. But more interestingly, the mice with chronic paralysis responded as well. Over 80 percent regained the ability to walk. Both groups also performed much better than the mice receiving no specific treatments.

An x-ray of a spine with implants
Spinal cord implants might help solve the riddle of spinal cord injuries.

In assessing the response rates in more detail, the researchers identified some unique findings. Most importantly, the hydrogel provided a highly dynamic environment in which the implanted cells seem to thrive. Not only did this network promote growth but likewise maturation of the cells. This played a significant role in promoting spinal cord injury recovery and subsequent ability to walk. Based on these results, the researchers are hoping to begin human trials of their process in the near future. They have already approached the FDA in this regard. Given that other options of care are quite limited, the chances of approval are believed to be good.

“Since we are proposing an advanced technology in regenerative medicine, and since at present there is no alternative for paralyzed patients, we have good reason to expect relatively rapid approval of our technology.” – Professor Tal Dvir

Ushering In an Era of Personalized Medicine

The results of these most recent spinal cord injury studies are exciting. However, they highlight just how much more there is to learn about cellular repair and regrowth. Certainly, using genetic engineering to reprogram cells so that they have greater potential is important. This is the premise behind using stem cells to improve a number of health conditions. Efforts to produce these types of cells through 3-D printing are currently being pursued as a result. But the current study also shows that the surrounding tissue is also critical for success. The hydrogel in the spinal cord implant was just as important as the embryonic cells.

Understanding this, it is not surprising that the researchers envision this same process being utilized for other disorders as well. For example, a similar approach could replace cells affected by Parkinson’s disease in the brain. It could also be utilized to repair damaged heart muscle tissue after a heart attack. Even patients with macular degeneration might benefit from such an approach. While its use in spinal cord injury remains a top priority, the genetic engineering techniques have broad potential. By offering a more personalized medicine approach, the opportunities for success could be much, much higher.

 

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