'Repair' hope for spinal victims

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The Independent Online
SCIENTISTS have successfully repaired severed spinal cords by using a new technique to fuse the broken ends together, it was revealed yesterday.

Although now confined to animal experiments, the breakthrough could one day offer new hope to spinal injury victims such as the actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralysed in a riding accident.

The American researchers who developed the technique said it was the first time the severed spinal cords of mammals had been given back their ability to transmit electrical nerve impulses.

Spinal cords were removed from guinea pigs, cut and fused together using polyethylene glycol - a type of plastic material used in medicine and cosmetics. Tests showed that all the repaired cords were able to conduct an electric current simulating nerve messages.

Richard Borgens, professor of developmental anatomy at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, who led the research, said: "This technique may be a revolutionary new way of dealing with injuries to the nervous system. It's too soon to know whether it could help patients with old injuries, but it is likely to be useful in treating recent injuries."

Significant numbers, but not all, of the nerve fibres within the severed spinal cords were reconnected. Between 5 per cent and 58 per cent of impulses that were able to pass through the cords before they were cut were successfully transmitted.

The results were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Physical Regulation in Biology and Medicine at Long Beach, California, and have been submitted for publication to the Journal of Neurotrauma.

The researchers plan to conduct research on paraplegic dogs early next year, but human patient trials are at least two years away.

Peter Teddy, consultant neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Royal Infirmary, Oxford, said: "It's interesting, but you have to be cautious ...

"I think it's a step on the way and it might be an important one, I don't know."

He pointed out, however, that simple conductivity of electricity did not necessarily indicate a restoration of useful function.