Despite the rapid advance of medicine, particularly in the biotech space, over the last couple of decades, sufferers of severe spinal injuries that involve extensive nerve damage are still often left paralysed. The complexity of nerve structures at the base of the spinal cord and the fact that if completely severed they do not naturally regrow is a challenge that even the extensive powers of modern medicine have struggled with.
There is now hope for a potential cure to paralysing spinal injuries and it comes from an initially surprising source – 3D printing technology. A research project based in the University of California San Diego and led by Professor Mark Tuszynski have used the very latest technology in the word of 3D printers to produce spinal cord ‘scaffolding’ that matches perfectly the damage area it fits into. These are implanted with neural stem cells which promote the kind of nerve growth required to restore connections, bring back function.
The most complex elements to the nerves in our spinal cords are called ‘axons’. These are thread-like extensions to nerve cells that stretch out and create connections with other cells. It is the severance of these bundles that leads to irreversible paralysis. The 3D printed section of spinal cord acts like a bridge, or scaffold, that guides and supports these regenerating axoms, allowing them to reach each other and re-establish the severed connections vital to regaining control of bodily function connected to the spinal cord. Particularly, movement of the lower body or from the neck down, depending upon where the spinal cord has been damaged.
The 3D printer creates tiny channels around twice the width of a hair that match up with where the axoms are on both sides of the severance. They then grow along those channels until they reconnect. Without the channels the axoms grow in random directions and usually fail to reconnect.
The team has already demonstrated that their technique has worked on rats, with injured specimens seeing significant motor function return to their hind legs within months of the 3D implants being surgically placed. The next stage is to scale the biotechnology up to trials on larger animals, probably pigs. If the same kind of success can be demonstrated it will be time to commence human trials. In the best case scenario, it will be another several years before the technique would be available to humans. But even if it runs into difficulties and needs to be refined further we now appear to be on the right track towards a successful treatment for the kinds of injuries that leave their victims paralysed for life.