GENETICS: Hope for spine injury treatment

Spinal injuries and damage to the central nervous system could eventually be repaired using genetic technology, following the discovery by American and Swiss scientists of a gene which makes nerves regrow. They report in today's edition of the science journal Nature that a gene known as bcl-2, which produces a protein of the same name, helped severed nerve axons in mice to regrow.

The finding is significant because axons, unlike other body cells, do not spontaneously regenerate after injury. This is why cranial or spinal injuries - such as that suffered by the actor Christopher Reeve - are almost always permanent.

Future treatments might use gene therapy, attaching a human form of the bcl-2 gene to affected nerves, or supplying the protein it makes to affected sites. The researchers, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Glaxo Institute in Geneva, say their finding "provides a basis for the design of new therapeutic strategies for treatment of brain and spinal injuries, as well as many neurodegenerative diseases".