The robotics industry may take a slight hit if new research into spinal cord regeneration produces results as promised. Because who needs a robotic suit when you can just fix the root of the problem.
Paralyzed lab rodents with spinal cord injuries apparently regained some ability to walk six weeks after a simple injection of biodegradable soap-like molecules that helped nerves regenerate.
The research could have implications for humans with similar injuries.
“It will take a long time, but we want to offer at least some improvement, to improve quality of life for people with these injuries,” materials scientist Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., told LiveScience. “Anything would be considered a breakthrough, because there’s nothing right now.”
The soap-like molecules contain a small piece of laminin, a natural protein important in brain development. After these molecules are injected into the body, they react with chemicals there, assembling themselves instantly into scaffolds of super-thin fibers just six billionths of a meter wide, roughly a hundredth a wavelength of orange light. They biodegrade after roughly eight weeks.
The scientists experimented with their molecules on dozens of mice and rats that experienced spinal cord injuries that paralyzed their hind legs, “the kind of very hard blow people might experience after falling off skiing slopes or getting in car accidents,” Stupp said. His colleague, neurologist John Kessler, became active in this work after Kessler’s daughter was paralyzed in a skiing accident.
After six weeks, damaged nerves regenerated enough for the paralyzed legs of the rodents to regain some ability to walk.