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There’s a new approach to repairing spinal cord damage that doctors say is a true breakthrough. Accident and gunshot victims as well as people with neuromuscular diseases and even stroke may all benefit.

Northwestern medicine researcher Dr. Samuel Stupp first began to work on the framework of nanoparticles science 20 years ago.

“It’s truly fascinating. It’s new science,” he said.

Dramatic images show a mouse dragging it’s paralyzed hind legs. Then after treatment the mouse is able to use the tiny limbs to hold weight and walk.

Mark Karver is the director at the Peptide Synthesis Core facility.

He said the blue microwave assisted peptides synthesizer “makes or synthesizes the nano materials that we used in this work.”

The nanomaterials are sped up with the machine. And speed matters when it comes to repair.

It was absolutely exciting for me as a scientist to see how well this therapy worked. And to realize that we discovered a completely unknown phenomenon, namely the effect of the motion of all of these thousands of molecules moving together and trying to signal receptors.

Dr. Samuel Stupp

“It is interesting that when the molecules move, the mouse moved and walked. When the molecules did not move as much, we could see that the repair was not as good,” Stupp said.

It works with a single injection aimed at the area below the injury to restore spinal cord function. In the lab, it was given to mice with simulated spinal cord trauma.

“Upon contact with the living tissue with the spinal cord, the liquid immediately gels and forms a network, a mesh of tiny fibers, that carry signals for the cells to begin regenerative and repair processes,” Stubb said. “Analyzing the spinal cord, we actually saw all the details of the things that were being repaired…. The axons which are the electrical cables are regenerating, how blood vessels are being reformed, how myelin which is an insulating layer around those electrical cables reforms. And that we were also able to save many neurons after this very large force impact it on the spine.”

As cell receptors dance through the system, they are more easily noticed and engaged for service by the green and orange nanofibers that contain two different bioactive signals critical for function.

“It’s meant to prevent paralysis after severe injury,” Stubb said. “But we are now already working on adopting the exact same therapy for the chronic injury. That is to see if we can help patients that have already been paralyzed sometime ago.”

The scientists are now gathering their data to apply for FDA approval of their approach. FDA regulators will likely then ask for further tests to verify the results.