• Dr. Timothy Smith

Article: How New Research Could Change the Way We Deal with Paralysis

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On May 27, 1995, the entertainment world received the shocking news that the star of three Superman movies, Christopher Reeve, broke his neck in a fall from his horse in a riding competition. The fracture injury left the 6’4”, forty-two-year-old actor known for his fitness and vitality a person with quadriplegia, paralyzed from the shoulders down. He would live only another ten years in a wheelchair and on a respirator. Despite his injuries, he continued to act, direct, and lead the development of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation for spinal injury research. Sadly, this tragedy repeats itself every day. Many people across the US and the world have paralysis every year due to spinal cord injury. However, a breakthrough in medicine by researchers at Northwestern University could be a complete game-changer in how we treat and manage paralysis. Using scaffolds in the same way that we do with buildings under construction, scientists could help the body rebuild its nerves in the spinal cord. This discovery has opened up a new line of therapy that may soon offer the victims of spinal cord injury a chance to walk again.

According to the Reeve Foundation, 1.4 million Americans live with paralysis due to spinal cord injury caused by car accidents, falls, sports injuries, and violence. (christopherreeve.org) Spinal injury leads to shortened life expectancy. Paralysis from spinal injury takes a tremendous toll on people’s lives because the spinal cord cannot repair itself, unlike many other parts of the body. Researchers have struggled for years to discover a cure for this affliction and have worked to understand the reason behind this phenomenon.

The spinal cord runs through a strong, protective tube inside the bony spinal column. In the case of physical trauma to the spine, such as fracture, stretching, or cutting, this long slender cord of nerves that run from the brain down into the body can get damaged. Unlike skin, bones, or blood vessels that can repair after injury, the long nerve cells of the spinal cord do not have the right components and environment for regrowth. When damage occurs to the spine, blood, immune cells, and other components flood into the injured area to form scar tissue that stabilizes the injury, but the scar tissues inhibit any possibility for nerves to regrow and reconnect to the brain.

The spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. It grew under special conditions during development from the fetus through early childhood. In humans, as in other mammals, specific chemical signals guide spinal cord growth and extension up to the age of four, creating complex circuits in the body. These long, electric cable-like, nerves have special insulation and require guidance from signaling molecules during early development to know where to grow. These circuits deliver information to the brain such as touch and temperature and commands from the brain to move or stand still. Following neural development, the body removes the special signals and guideposts that tell the nerves in the spinal column when and where to grow. Because of scar tissue and inflammation and a lack of the signals that developed the nerves of the spinal column, the severely damaged spinal cord could not repair itself until recent advances in medical research.

Late last year, on November 21, 2021, research published in the prestigious journal, Science, described the development of molecular scaffolds that, when injected into paralyzed mice, repaired their spinal cord and restored their ability to walk. The article “Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery from spinal cord injury” describes groundbreaking technology that combines nanoscale scaffolds to support nerve regeneration. (science.org) The scaffolds have two vital biological signaling molecules attached to them—laminin signal, which promotes nerve regeneration, and fibroblast growth factor 2 to support nerve survival. Such signals in the spinal cord do not occur naturally after spinal cord development, which partly explains why severe spinal cord injury does not repair itself. The researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago who invented the molecular scaffolds also added flexibility to the scaffolds that allow them to wave around and activate many cells. The waving or dancing of the scaffolds increases the number and quality of new nerves in the spinal cord, restoring the paralyzed mice the ability to walk. Finally, the researchers engineered the scaffolds to break down after the repair to avoid any toxicity.

Millions of people worldwide live with paralysis due to severe spinal cord injury. Nearly 1.5 million Americans have paralysis due to car accidents, sports injuries, and violent attacks. The spinal cord extends down a heavily armored tube in the spine, but sufficient force can damage it, resulting in loss of feeling and control of the body and limbs below the injury. Unlike bones and skin, the spinal cord, in most cases, does not repair itself after severe injury. Due to inflammation, scar tissue, and a lack of the chemical signals that helped develop the spinal cord, most paralysis will not reverse itself. However, researchers at Northwestern University announced in November of 2021 that they have created tiny molecular scaffolds that can help the damaged spinal cord repair itself. Using complex computer modeling and experimentation, they demonstrated that their scaffolds, with nerve regeneration and growth signals attached to them, could repair severely damaged spinal cord in mice, restoring the ability of the paralyzed mice to walk. Showing a cure for severe spinal cord damage for the first time offers hope that this therapy may one day be available to the millions suffering from paralysis.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.