Nerve cells 'guided' to repair spinal damage: Technique

August 16, 2004

University of Toronto researchers have designed a method to facilitate nerve cell repair that could ultimately lead to treating severed spinal cords.

The technique, outlined in the July 6 online version of Biomaterials, involves imbedding a series of fibrous rods into a gel substance and then dissolving the rods, leaving a series of longitudinal channels. These channels are then injected with peptides, molecules that stimulate cell adhesion and migration. "When nerve cells are placed at the opening of the channel, the peptides act like breadcrumbs to follow," says Molly Shoichet, lead author and professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at U of T's Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME).

According to Shoichet, the technique is part of an overall strategy to repair spinal cord injuries where the spine is cut in two. After joining the ends of the severed spine with a tube, researchers would then fill this tube with the gel channels and peptides to stimulate nerve cell growth and bridge the gap between the two ends. "We need cells to grow in a specific direction to minimize that distance, thereby reducing the time for regeneration," says Shoichet, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. "A longitudinal channel - a straight line - is the minimum distance between two points."

The research, which has yet to be tested in animal models or humans, was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship in Science and Technology.
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CONTACT: Molly Shoichet, Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, 416-978-1460, molly@ecf.utoronto.ca (accessible by e-mail only from Aug. 16 to 20) or Karen Kelly, U of T Public Affairs, 416-978-0260, k.kelly@utoronto.ca

University of Toronto

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