Neuro-healing gel heals the spinal cord after injury

With spinal injuries, neural “wires” are torn – long processes-axons, along which nerve cells transmit electrochemical impulses to each other. In addition to neurons, blood vessels are damaged, which supply the nerve tissue with oxygen and nutrients. As a consequence, the brain loses connection with the limbs, and paralysis occurs, complete or partial. In theory, neurons have the molecular tools to regenerate processes, and blood vessels could regenerate too. But in practice, for various reasons, this does not happen, and connective tissue grows at the site of the injury, which makes it even more difficult to restore neural connections in the damaged spinal cord.

But if the neurons themselves cannot start the proper healing program, maybe they can be helped in this? We need to find a way to turn on certain signaling pathways that activate the desired genes. But while the signaling pathways and the genes of interest are well known, turning them on is not easy. Researchers have been looking for how to do this for several years, but so far there have been no big successes. For example, if it turns out to start the regeneration of neural processes in neurons living in cell culture, then in experiments on a real spinal cord, everything ends in failure.

One of the reasons for the failure here is that drug molecules cannot interact with receptors on cell membranes. The fact is that the receptors are not rigidly fixed in the same place, they float in the membrane all the time, and if we are talking about neural processes, they can float quite far away. When a drug is injected into the damaged area – some signaling molecule – it will work where it was injected; but if the receptors float away, then the drug must follow them, and this is not always possible to do: the signaling molecule must be sufficiently stable and capable of passing through the intercellular substance.

Employees Northwestern University managed to get out of the situation with the help of a special therapeutic gel: it is injected into the place of injury in liquid form, but once it gets into the tissue, it turns into long fibril threads seated with medicinal molecules. Regeneration is usually stimulated by signaling proteins, but here the researchers did not take complete proteins, but their fragments-peptides capable of interacting with the desired cellular receptors – short peptides are more stable and easier to handle than whole protein molecules.

Medicinal peptides do not sit in one place, but travel along the fibrils, and as a result, they interact more efficiently with mobile receptors on neurons and other cells. In an article in Science it is said that the gel with the drug successfully turned on two signaling pathways at the site of injury: one worked in neurons, prompting them to grow new processes-axons, the second signal forced other cells to actively divide in order to restore blood vessels. As a result, the neural outgrowths regenerated and re-established communication across the gap. Mice that, after a spinal cord injury, could not move their hind legs and who were treated in this way, regained mobility – albeit not completely, but one way or another, they began to touch their hind legs again, as you can see in this video:

Mice are mice, but the new neuro-healing gel is to be tested on the human spinal cord. If the clinical results are encouraging, it might be possible to think about using the same method in the treatment of other diseases associated with damage and death of neurons.

Source: Автономная некоммерческая организация "Редакция журнала «Наука и жизнь»" by

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