Spinal cord injuries (SCIs) harm the nerves housed in the spinal cord, often causing irreversible damage to the body and its functions. Normally, physicians and other clinicians can only help people adapt to their SCIs instead of healing them, but researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology might have discovered an essential key in the search for a possible cure. Just a word of warning: this article contains descriptions of animal experimentation, so some information might not be suitable for some readers.
Dr. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology recently led a multi-university study to determine if lab rats with simulated complete spinal cord injuries could regain the use of their hind legs with the introduction of stem cells and tissue engineered scaffolds. Some stem cells had been induced to differentiate (i.e., develop into different type of cells such as support cells), while others hadn’t been induced at all. And, the scaffolds were designed to “provide a 3D environment in which cells can attach, grow and differentiate, maintain cell distribution, and provide graft protection following transplantation.” In other words, the scaffolds made sure the stem cells grew as intended and weren’t accidentally damaged.
Researchers took lab rats and surgically removed a small portion of the lamina (the bony plates of the vertebrae that protect the spinal column and the vulnerable nerves) and cut through all of the nerves. Since incomplete spinal cord injuries only damage some nerves and can, for example, leave people unable to move their legs but capable of feeling through them or vice versa, the researchers had to sever all the nerves to simulate a complete spinal cord injury. Some rats were then implanted with the scaffold and stem cells (some of which were induced and some of which were not) to bridge the severed nerves. Other rats were implanted only with the scaffold, and a control group received neither scaffold nor stem cells.
After the scaffolds and stem cells were implanted, the researchers stitched up all the rats, including the control group, and observed them for any improvements. Rats that received both the scaffold and induced stem cells recovered better than the other groups; 42% of these rats were able to walk and support their body weight with their hind legs after three weeks. Furthermore 75% of this group reacted to stimuli in their hind legs and tail. Fewer rats with the non-induced stem cells recovered as fully as the rats with the induced stem cells. Furthermore, researchers found the scaffold-only group could not respond to any stimuli in their hind legs or tail, and rats in the control group did not improve at all.
While the study demonstrates that induced stem cells coupled with tissue engineered scaffolds could potentially help people with SCIs walk again, the number of rats who fully recovered was fairly low. Still, the results are promising and lay the groundwork for future studies that might one day develop a cure for SCIs. The full article on Levenberg’s study can be found on Frontiers.