Natural Hydrogel May Boost Spinal Cord Healing

WASHINGTON – A jab of biomaterial gel into a spinal cord injury site may significantly improve healing, according to researchers at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

Dr. Mark Preul and Dr. Alyssa Panitch have found in a study that injection of an engineered hydrogel made up mainly of hyaluronic acid (a naturally-occurring body substance) into the spinal cord injury site decreases scarring, and promotes a realignment of the spinal cord fibres around the injury site.

The hyaluronic acid, which forms a scaffold-like configuration may help to structurally stabilize the spinal cord injury site.

The researchers traced cells in the brain stem after injury, and found much higher levels in the hydrogel treated animals as compared to animals that did not receive the treatment, and approached nearly normal levels.

Treated animals had higher functional scores than their non-treated counterparts.

“Spinal cord injury is devastating to civilian and military populations – especially to the young. There has been little progress toward paradigms of regeneration and few results that show real, sustained functional recovery. We’ve been so pre-occupied with regeneration, but that is a highly complicated and difficult to define goal. This project is a synergy of neurosurgeons and bioengineers that attempts repair of the SCI lesion cavity using a tissue-engineering biomaterials approach,” says Preul.

He added that the team aimed at finding ways to structurally allow the body to better heal itself.

“In this project we did not add anything to the hyaluronic acid. It may be that adding growth factors or cells into the gel matrix may allow even better results,” he said.

Preul said that the results show “we may be on a practical path that can give hope to the many people who suffer this sort of injury.”

The work was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in San Diego where it won the Synthes Prize for Spine Research.

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