Friday, October 21, 2005

South Korea Aims to Ease Stem-Cell Access

South Korean scientists announce a new consortium aimed at giving researchers wider access to custom-made human embryonic stem-cell lines. The World Stem Cell Hub conflicts with U.S. policies that have limited scientists' access to stem cells in the past.

By: Nell Boyce
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

U of L Researcher Reverses Spinal Cord Damage in Rats

Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky Michelle Bazeley believes that she will see a cure for spinal cord injuries in her lifetime.

According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, about 11,000 people sustain spinal cord injuries each year. People with these injuries have a new reason for hope.

A new method for treating spinal cord injuries being tested at the University of Louisville has created a stir in the medical community. Dr. Scott Whittemore, the researcher conducting the experiments, warns that they must proceed carefully.

Whittemore, a U of L researcher and scientific director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, successfully showed that by grafting stem cells onto damaged spinal cords in rats, paralysis can be partially reversed and in some cases corrected.

"The research seems to offer some real promise," said Marci Roth, director and CEO for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

Whittemore said that other scientists have shown the experiment to be theoretically possible, but he believes that he is the first to prove it to be possible during clinical studies. He estimates that it took his team seven or eight years to obtain the desired results.

"We thought it was going to be easy," Whittemore said with a laugh. "The work study itself was a year-long study."

The stem cells and gene therapy allowed rats to more quickly reproduce myelin, a protective coating around the nervous system that, when damaged, can disrupt signals from the spinal cord to the brain, leading to paralysis.

"It's a good avenue to explore. It's definitely hopeful," said Bazeley, the 30-year-old circle leader for Winners on Wheels.

However, she hopes that the research does not become too publicized until scientists know for sure that it will work.

While the developments have gained national attention, Whittemore initially focused the attention locally to inform the community of his progress and because he expects that human trials could be years away.

"We [advertised] locally so both the university and the community could understand what we're doing here ? that we're doing very important research," Whittemore said. However, John Drees, director of Communication and Marketing for U of L, said that more publicity events are in store to help promote the research nationally.

Whittemore said there need to be more tests and better results before experiments should be done on humans. "One question you may ask is ? can you make this work better?" he said. "And secondly, when you start to think of clinical applications, there are certain concerns that are going to have to be addressed before we use these types of approaches."

Dr. David Magnuson, an associate professor in neurological surgery at U of L, has not directly participated in the research but has given his input to aid the researchers.

He said the next step for the team will be to "replicate and validate" the results, adding that they plan to do tests in other laboratories to make sure the results remain the same.

Magnuson said that while there are concerns about creating a false hope or lacking quality in research, he also the prestige that comes with being first.

"We're all under pressure to publish," he said.

While Whittemore admitted that he would appreciate getting credit for such a breakthrough in spinal cord treatment, he said that it's much more important to make sure the research is done correctly. He acknowledged that problems occurring during human research could set back the entire field.

"We need to make that process more efficient, and we?re doing that in our ongoing research," Whittemore said. "We?re moving forward. Things don't come that quickly."

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Friday, October 07, 2005

Myelin Research Has Promise

Researchers at Yale Medical School are continuing to make strides in the field of neurological research with their discovery of a potential treatment for spinal cord injury and other debilitating illnesses.

The team of scientists, led by neurologist Dr. Stephen Strittmatter, are studying the causes of neural plasticity, the characteristic that allows cells to take on shape and form. Their findings will be printed in an upcoming issue of the publication Science.

Strittmatter's team attacked this challenge from the perspective of injuries such as spinal cord trauma and strokes, which destroy neurons. During brain development, he said, countless connections are made between neuron-heavy gray matter and white matter, where myelin, the fatty substance that covers certain axons, is found. Yet in adults, the brain loses plasticity, and cannot make these connections, which means it will not be able to reconstruct these ties between white and gray matter in the case of an injury.

For the past several years, the Strittmatter lab has been studying the properties of myelination, or the process of covering the axons with myelin. Their current research describes a novel property in myelin, the presence of inhibitory proteins that end plasticity, or in this case, prevent injury correction.

"So if these inhibitors prevent you from recovering from an injury, why on earth would they exist?" Strittmatter said. "What is their natural function?"

Strittmatter said the inhibitors may lock the neural connections into place until puberty. His research using the visual system of rodent models demonstrated that one protein inhibitor, NOGO, is involved in plasticity loss.

"If you patch one eye during the development phase, the cortex will rearrange," Strittmatter said.

The eye experiment shows the brain's plasticity before puberty. But the mice without NOGO had longer periods of plasticity, which allowed the brain to repair itself in adulthood, well beyond puberty. Strittmater's work provides the prospect for treatment against spinal cord injury, strokes and possibly other brain injuries after development. The idea of causing neurons to grow back in the adult brain does not exist in any current treatments, but Strittmatter said the possibility of initiating human trials for this type of treatment is not very far off.

"[This research] examines the critical period physiologically from eye-opening to puberty," Nigel Daw, co-author and professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine, said.

The research suggests the reason behind a loss of plasticity is that negative factors like the NOGO are already inhibiting and closing down during that critical period.

"If possible, we would like to actually see the anatomical changes from a loss of plasticity and to work out the relationships between these negative factors," Daw said.

A National Spinal Cord Injury Association spokesman said he welcomes this kind of treatment, especially if it becomes available at trauma centers. Most treatment options for spinal cord injury are invasive and must be administered soon after injury occurs. But the spokesman said any potential improvement will have a dramatic impact on regaining function.

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