Scientists say they have taken a significant step towards the goal of giving paralysed people control of their hands again.
The team at King’s College London used gene therapy to repair damage in the spinal cord of rats. The animals could then pick up and eat sugar cubes with their front paws.
It is early stage research, but experts said it was some of the most compelling evidence that people’s hand function could one day be restored.
The body repairs a wounded spinal cord with scar tissue. However, the scar acts like a barrier to new connections forming between nerves.
The researchers were trying to dissolve components of the scar tissue in the rats’ spinal cord. They needed to give cells in the cord a new set of genetic instructions – a gene – for breaking down the scar.
The instructions they gave were for an enzyme called chondroitinase. And they used a virus to deliver them. Finally, a drug was used to activate the instructions.
The animals regained use of their front paws after the gene therapy had been switched on for two months.
“We also found a dramatic increase in activity in the spinal cord of the rats, suggesting that new connections had been made in the networks of nerve cells,” [said researcher Emily Burnside]. The researchers hope their approach will work for people injured in car crashes or falls.
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