Gene Inhibitor Plus Fish Fibrin Restore Nerve Function Lost After a Spinal Cord Injury

Scientists at UC Irvine’s Reeve-Irvine Research Center have discovered that injections of salmon fibrin injections into the injured spinal cord plus injections of a gene inhibitor into the brain restored voluntary motor function impaired by spinal cord injury.

Gail Lewandowski and Oswald Steward, director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UCI, examined rodents that had received spinal cord injuries.  They were able to heal the damage by developmentally turning back the clock in a molecular pathway that is critical to the formation of the corticospinal nerve tract, and by providing a scaffold for the growing neurons so that the axons of these growing neurons could grow and make the necessary connections with other cells.  Their research was published in the July 23 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

The work of Steward and Lewandowski is an extension of previous research at UC Irvine from 2010.  Steward and his colleagues discovered that the axon of neurons grow quite well once an enzyme called PTEN is removed from the cells.  PTEN is short for “phosphatase and tensin homolog,” and it removes phosphate groups from specific proteins and lipids.  In doing so, PTEN signals to cells to stop dividing and it can also direct cells to undergo programmed cell death (a kind of self-destruct program).  PTEN also prevents damaged tissues from regenerating sometimes, because it is a protein that puts the brakes of cell division.  Mutations in PTEN are common in certain cancers, but the down-regulation of PTEN is required for severed axons to re-form, extend, migrate to their original site, and form new connections with their target cells.

PTEN function


After two years, team from U.C. Irvine discovered that injections of salmon fibrin into the damaged spinal cord or rats filled cavities at the injury site and provided the axons with a scaffolding upon which they could grow, reconnect and facilitate recovery. Fibrin produced by the blood system when the blood vessels are breached and it is a fibrous, insoluble protein produced by the blood clotting process.  Surgeons even use it as a kind of surgical glue.

“This is a major next step in our effort to identify treatments that restore functional losses suffered by those with spinal cord injury,” said Steward, professor of anatomy & neurobiology and director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. “Paralysis and loss of function from spinal cord injury has been considered irreversible, but our discovery points the way toward a potential therapy to induce regeneration of nerve connections.”

In their study, Steward and Lewandowski subjected rats to spinal cord injuries, and then assessed their defects.  Because these were upper back injuries, the rats all showed impaired forelimb (hand) movement.  Steward and Lewandowski then treated these animals with a combination of salmon fibrin at the site of injury and a modified virus that made a molecule that inhibited PTEN.  These viruses were genetically engineered adenovirus-associated viruses encoded a small RNA that inhibited translation of the PTEN gene (AAVshPTEN).  This greatly decreased the levels of PTEN protein in the neurons.  Other rodents received control treatments of only AAVshPTEN and no salmon fibrin.

The results were remarkable.  Those rats that received the PTEN inhibitor alone showed no improvement in their forelimb function, but those animals who were given AAVshPTEN plus the salmon fibrin recovered forelimb use (at least reaching and grasping).

“The data suggest that the combination of PTEN deletion and salmon fibrin injection into the lesion can significantly enhance motor skills by enabling regenerative growth of corticospinal tract axons,” Steward said.

Corticospinal Nerve tract

Statistics compiled by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation suggests that approximately 2 percent of Americans have some form of paralysis that is the result of a spinal cord injury.  Spinal cord injuries break connections between nerves and muscles or nerves and other nerves.  Even injuries the size of a grape can cause complete loss of function below the level of the injury.  Injuries to the neck can cause paralysis of the arms and legs, an absence of sensation below the shoulders, bladder and bowel incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and secondary health risks such as susceptibility to urinary tract infections, pressure sores and blood clots due to an inability to move one’s legs.

Steward said the next objective is to learn how long after injury this combination treatment can be effectively administered. “It would be a huge step if it could be delivered in the chronic period weeks and months after an injury, but we need to determine this before we can engage in clinical trials,” he said.

Meta Study Shows that Mesenchymal Stem Cells Promote Healing in Animal Models of Stroke

Two scientists from my alma mater, UC Irvine, have examined experiments that treated stroke with bone marrow-derived stem cells. Their analysis has shown that infusions of these stem cells trigger repair mechanisms and limit inflammation in the brains of stroke patients.

UC Irvine neurologist Dr. Steven Cramer and biomedical engineer Weian Zhao identified 46 studies that examined the use of a specific type of bone marrow stem cells called mesenchymal stromal cells to treat stroke. Mesenchymal stromal cells are a type of multipotent adult stem cells that are found in many locations in the body. The best-known examples of mesenchymal stem cells are from bone marrow. When purified from whole bone marrow and used to treat stroke in animal models of stroke, Cramer and Zhao found that mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) were significantly better than control therapy in 44 of the 46 studies that were examined.

Further data culling of these studies showed that functional recovery from stroke were robust regardless of the MSC dosage or the time when MSCs were administered relative to the onset of the stroke, or the method of administration (whether introduced directly into the brain or injected via a blood vessel).

“Stroke remains a major cause of disability, and we are encouraged that the preclinical evidence shows [MSCs’] efficacy with ischemic stroke,” said Cramer, a professor of neurology and leading stroke expert. “MSCs are of particular interest because they come from bone marrow, which is readily available, and are relatively easy to culture. In addition, they already have demonstrated value when used to treat other human diseases.”

Another theme of these studies is that MSCs do not differentiate into brain-specific. MSCs have the capacity to differentiate into bone, cartilage and fat cells. “But they do their magic as an inducible pharmacy on wheels and as good immune system modulators, not as cells that directly replace lost brain parts,” he said.

In an earlier Cramer and Zhao examined the mechanism by which MSCs promote brain repair after stroke. These cells have the ability to home to the damages areas in the brain and release chemicals that stimulate healing. By releasing their cornucopia of healing-promoting molecules, MSCs orchestrate blood vessel creation to enhance circulation, the protection of moribund cells on the verge of death, and the growth of existing brain cells. Additionally, when MSCs reach the bloodstream, they settle in those parts of the body that control the immune system and they suppress the inflammatory response that can augment tissue damage. In this way, MSCs foster an environment more conducive to brain repair.

“We conclude that MSCs have consistently improved multiple outcome measures, with very large effect sizes, in a high number of animal studies and, therefore, that these findings should be the foundation of further studies on the use of MSCs in the treatment of ischemic stroke in humans,” said Cramer, who is also clinical director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center.