Researchers at Northwestern University have developed an injectable therapeutic that consists of synthetic peptide sequences intended to regenerate spinal tissue. The team designed the material so that it would allow the peptides to ‘dance,’ with such movements increasing the chance that they will find and interact with receptor proteins in neural tissue. The technique has already been shown to promote repair of spinal cord injuries in mice.
“Our research aims to find a therapy that can prevent individuals from becoming paralyzed after major trauma or disease,” said Samuel Stupp, one of the developers of the new technology, in a Northwestern announcement. “For decades, this has remained a major challenge for scientists because our body’s central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, does not have any significant capacity to repair itself after injury or after the onset of a degenerative disease. We are going straight to the FDA to start the process of getting this new therapy approved for use in human patients, who currently have very few treatment options.”
The injectable material contains synthetic peptides that are intended to stimulate spinal repair in the following ways: they help to reduce scar tissue at the injury site, they stimulate axon and myelin regeneration, they increase neuronal survival, and they stimulate blood vessel growth. However, the most exciting aspect of the technology is its ability to enhance interactions between the peptides and the target receptors in the treated tissue. The injectable consists of a network of nanofibers that let the peptides move about.
“Receptors in neurons and other cells constantly move around,” said Stupp. “The key innovation in our research, which has never been done before, is to control the collective motion of more than 100,000 molecules within our nanofibers. By making the molecules move, ‘dance’ or even leap temporarily out of these structures, known as supramolecular polymers, they are able to connect more effectively with receptors.”
So far, the researchers tested their treatment in mice with spinal cord injuries who exhibited paralysis of their back legs. Four weeks after treatment, where the bioactive injectable was administered into the tissues surrounding the damaged spinal area, the mice regained the ability to walk.
“The central nervous system tissues we have successfully regenerated in the injured spinal cord are similar to those in the brain affected by stroke and neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Stupp. “Beyond that, our fundamental discovery about controlling the motion of molecular assemblies to enhance cell signaling could be applied universally across biomedical targets.”
Check out a Northwestern University video about the technology:
Study in journal Science: Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery from spinal cord injury
Top image: A new injectable therapy forms nanofibers with two different bioactive signals (green and orange) that communicate with cells to initiate repair of the injured spinal cord. Illustration by Mark Seniw