Thursday, July 17, 2008

Allen Institute Releases Spinal Cord Map

Spinal cord injuries have long baffled doctors. Now the Allen Institute for Brain Science is doing for spinal research what they did for brain science - providing the first comprehensive road map of a mouse's spine.

"It's a groundbreaking project that tells us where each gene in the genome is turned on in cells in the spinal cord," Dr. Allan Jones, Allen Institute's Chief Scientific Officer, said in a news conference Thursday. "This is very important because the genes ultimately contribute to the specific biochemistry of a particular cell."

Jones says because mice share many of the same genes with humans, the implications are far-reaching.

"Researchers working on things like spinal muscular atrophy, degenerative disease like MS and Lou Gerhig's disease or ALS , also people who suffer from spinal cord injuries," he said.

The first 2,000 genes are available online now, with the full map of 20,000 genes to be completed by the end of the year. All the information is free to scientists and the public.

"It's sort of a virtual microscope that scientists can come and zoom in," said Jones. "It's like having the microscope slide right there in front of them."

"The comprehensive map of the genes of the spinal cord will be an incredible resource for scientists and researchers studying how the spinal cord is altered in disease or an injury, and more importantly it's going to give hope to really millions of Americans who suffer from spinal cord diseases and disorders," Sen. Patty Murray said at the news conference.

Said each day, 1,000 scientists have been accessing the Allen Brain Atlas Project, which went live in December of 2004 and was completed in 2006.

"Researchers have been using this to support all aspects of brain research," said Jones. "Just some examples: Alzheimer's, autism, bipolar, Down syndrome, Fragile X mental retardation, epilepsy, alcoholism, obesity, Parkinson's disease, sleep, hearing, memory, and more."

In December, Marine Corporal Jerold Mason was paralyzed in a car crash. These days he's grateful for the small things, like being able to listen to his I-Pod.

"It like takes you away from the stress. I will always use music to do that," he said.

Mason can now control his I-Pod with a straw. This one small step is inspiring him.

"Allows me to think of times when I did have the use of my arms, my legs and you know it makes me want to push harder," he said.

Thanks to the spinal cord map, researchers will be able to push harder, as well.

"It's all undiscovered new stuff. So they're a bit like a kid in a candy store in terms of the new data in the excitement of looking at it," said Jones.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen started the mapping project with $100 million in seed money. It's now grown to include other private, as well as public, funding.

Story By JEAN ENERSEN

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