Discovery may help nerve regeneration in spinal injury

November 9, 2012

Video (credit: University of Liverpool)

Scientists at the Universities of Liverpool and Glasgow have discovered a possible new method of enhancing nerve repair in the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

It is known that scar tissue, which forms following spinal cord injury, creates an impenetrable barrier to nerve regeneration, leading to the irreversible paralysis associated with spinal injuries. The scientists found that long-chain sugars, called heparan sulfates, play a significant role in the process of scar formation in cell models in the laboratory.

Scarring results from the activation, change in shape, and stiffening of astrocyte cells, Chthe major nerve support cells in the spinal cord.  One possible way to repair nerve damage is transplantation of support cells from peripheral nerves, called Schwann cells.  The team, however, found that these cells secrete heparan sulfate sugars, which promote scarring reactions and could reduce the effectiveness of nerve repair.

“We found that some sugar types promote scarring reaction, but remarkably other types, which can be chemically produced in the laboratory by modifying heparin, can prevent this in our cell models,” Professor Jerry Turnbull, from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology“Studies in animal cells are now needed, but the exciting thing about this work is that it could, in the future, provide a way of developing treatments for improving nerve repair in patients, using the body’s own Schwann cells, supplemented with specific sugars.”

The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.