The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves and tissues that extends from the base of the brain down the length of the back. When the cord is injured or damaged, messages from the brain are disrupted or cut off completely, resulting in partial or total loss of feeling and movement below the point of injury.
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, approximately 288,000 Americans currently live with a spinal cord injury. However, a recent study uncovered an unlikely ally in the search for a cure for spinal injuries—an endangered salamander.
More specifically, the axolotl, which has an amazing ability to not only regenerate its own limbs, but also heal its own spinal cord in the event of an injury. The axolotl, also known as the Mexican Walking Fish, is native to lakes near Mexico City, and grows to around nine inches in length. It can grow back lost limbs and even replace its lungs and parts of its brain if it suffers a head injury—and heals without scarring.
We've always known the axolotl had the ability to heal itself in this manner, but a study from the University of Minnesota has uncovered how they do this, and how humans may be able to replicate the process on themselves.
Axolotl, heal thyself
When this little salamander suffers a spinal cord injury, its body jumps into action. Near the site of the injury, nearby cells called glial cells start rapidly multiplying and position themselves to rebuild damaged connections between nerves and the injured spinal cord. In comparison, when a human suffers a spinal cord injury, the glial cells form scar tissue instead, which block the nerves from ever reconnecting with each other.
In their research, the team discovered that a protein called c-Fos is necessary for the regeneration process. Further, c-Fos is found in both salamanders and humans. In humans, however, the protein is prevented from working by another family of proteins called Juns. Juns trigger the scar tissue that prevent the nerves from reconnecting.
But now that they've found the common link—c-Fos protein—scientists are optimistic that if they can create a drug or compound that can switch off the Jun proteins, it will allow human glial cells to grow back injured areas of the spinal cord.
"Humans have very limited capacity for regeneration, while other species like salamanders have the remarkable ability to functionally regenerate limbs, heart tissue and even the spinal cord after injury," said lead researcher Dr Karen Echeverri, PhD, assistant professor in the department of genetics, cell biology and development at the University of Minnesota.
"We have discovered that despite this difference in response to injury, these animals share many of the same genes with humans. This knowledge could be used to design new therapeutic targets for treating spinal cord injury or other neurodegenerative diseases."
Spinal cord injuries can be devastating and life-altering. If you or a loved one were in an accident that resulted in paralysis or other type of spine injury, we would like to help. If your accident was due to someone else's negligence or recklessness, you may be due compensation for your injuries and damages. Please call Crandall & Pera Law at 877-686-8879, or fill out our contact form to schedule a no-obligation consultation at one of our offices in Ohio or Kentucky.