People with spinal cord injury often lose the ability to perform everyday actions that require coordinated hand movements, such as writing, holding a toothbrush or picking up a drink. Regaining hand function is the top priority for patients and would dramatically improve independence and quality of life. No regenerative treatments are currently available.
The researchers tested a new gene therapy for regenerating damaged tissue in the spinal cord that could be switched on and off using a common antibiotic.
Professor Elizabeth Bradbury from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) said: ‘What is exciting about our approach is that we can precisely control how long the therapy is delivered by using a gene ‘switch’. This means we can hone in on the optimal amount of time needed for recovery. Gene therapy provides a way of treating large areas of the spinal cord with only one injection, and with the switch we can now turn the gene off when it is no longer needed.’
After a traumatic spinal injury, dense scar tissue forms which prevents new connections being made between nerve cells. The gene therapy causes cells to produce an enzyme called chondroitinase which can break down the scar tissue and allow networks of nerve cells to regenerate.
Most human spinal cord injuries occur at the neck level and affect all four limbs. The researchers gave the gene therapy to rats with spinal injuries that closely mimicked the kind of human spinal injuries that occur after traumatic impacts such as car crashes or falls.