Combining partially differentiated stem cells with gene therapy can promote the growth of new "insulation" around nerve fibers in the damaged spinal cords of rats, a new study shows. The treatment, which mimics the activity of two nerve growth factors, also improves the animals motor function and electrical conduction from the brain to the leg muscles. The finding may eventually lead to new ways of treating spinal cord injury in humans. The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health.
The new study provides the best demonstration to date that producing a nerve-insulating substance called myelin can lead to functional improvements in animals with spinal cord injury. Previous studies have shown that the loss of myelin around nerve fibers contributes to the impaired function after a spinal cord injury. However, until now it has not been clear whether promoting new myelin growth in the spinal cord can reverse this damage, says Scott R. Whittemore, Ph.D., of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who led the new study. "Many other investigators have suggested that remyelination is a possible approach to repair the spinal cord, but this is the first study to show unequivocally that it works," says Dr. Whittemore. "It is a proof of principle." Although the finding is promising, much work remains before such a technique could be used in humans. The study appears in the July 27, 2005, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
In the study, the researchers took cells called special cells called glial-restricted precursors from the spinal cords of embryonic rats. These precursor cells develop from stem cells and are specialized so that they can form only two kinds of cells: astrocytes, which help support neurons and influence their activity, and oligodendrocytes, which produce myelin. The scientists used a modified virus to insert genes for marker proteins that make the cells visible. Some cells also received a gene called D15A. This gene produces a protein with activity similar to growth factors called neurotrophin 3 (NT3) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Both NT3 and BDNF help myelin-producing cells (oligodendrocytes) develop and survive.
Natalie Frazin | EurekAlert!
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