Every year 1,000 people in the UK and Ireland are paralysed following an injury to their spinal cord[i]. And there are currently around 40,000 people living with a spinal injury[ii] in the UK.
Spinal cord injuries (SCI) can have a devastating impact on individuals and their families and scientists around the world are working hard to develop effective, reliable treatments for those affected.
Last year, an article in NR Times reported that scientists have made a major breakthrough in spinal cord research due to how embryos develop.
They have discovered how nerve cells in the spinal cord are organised in precise patterns during embryo development – a finding that could lead the way to improvements in regenerative medicine.
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute, the Institute of Science and Technology (Austria) and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland) report that cells destined to become nerve cells in developing mouse embryos use two different signals spreading from opposite sides of the spinal cord to measure their position accurately. They then turn into the appropriate nerve cell type.
Anna Kicheva from the Institute of Science and Technology said: “We’ve made an important step in understanding how the diverse cell types in the spinal cord of a developing embryo are organised in a precise spatial pattern. The quantitative measurements and new experimental techniques we used, as well as the combined effort of biologists, physicists and engineers were key.”
James Briscoe from the Francis Crick Institute added: “It’s likely that similar strategies are used in other developing tissues and our findings might be relevant to those cases. In the long run, this will help inform the use of stem cells in approaches such as tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. However, there is still so much to learn and we need to continue developing these interdisciplinary collaborations to further our biological understanding.”
It is hoped that ongoing scientific research will eventually benefit the 400,000 people in the UK living with a spinal cord injury (SCI), the circa 1,000 people who are newly injured each year and the millions of people affected by SCI worldwide.
Research into SCI has really gained traction in the last 20 years. Thanks to determination and ongoing hard work, the potential for functional recovery after SCI has never been so high. However, more research is needed to understand the best innovative treatments to help survivors regain some or all of their motor and/or sensory functions and this will only be achieved via international collaboration and a continued, concerted effort to achieve further breakthroughs.