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Wednesday, 1 November, 2000, 18:04 GMT
'Key discovery' in nerve repair
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By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Scientists have made a discovery they say might one day allow the re-growth of damaged nerve cells such as those severed in spinal cord injuries.

Researchers at Boston's Children's Hospital, US, believe they have found the molecular mechanism that controls nerve cell regeneration.

"For the first time, we have a handle on the central program that controls the fundamental mechanism for nerve cell growth," Dr Larry Benowitz told BBC News Online.

Researchers claim that in five to 10 years' time it may be possible to achieve repair of some spinal injuries.

Master switch

Normally, central nervous system (cns) cells are unable to re-grow after they are damaged. When injury occurs, communication with other nerve cells is lost, often causing severe paralysis.

Last year, a group led by Dr Larry Benowitz reported that inosine, a naturally occurring small molecule that is normally found in low levels in the brain, can promote extensive nerve cell growth in rats with spinal cord injury.

The treated rats regained a significant amount of function in their previously paralysed lower limbs.

Dr Benowitz said: "What we have been trying to do since then is to understand what was happening on a molecular level. How does inosine do it?

"The big surprise is that inosine regulates all the other genes involved in nerve repair. It activates the 'master switch' if you like," he added.

Growth factors

Dr Benowitz and his group are hopeful that by activating nerve cells with inosine they may be able to achieve regenerative nerve cell growth in humans.

"We knew from previous studies that there are a whole set of genes that are activated only when nerve cells are forming their connections with other nerve cells. What we did not know is how those genes were controlled or how they got started."

"Our findings indicate that the regenerative effects of growth factors are mediated through this final common pathway,'' added Dr Benowitz.

The latest research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience and was partly sponsored by biotechnology firm Boston Life Sciences Inc (BLSI) and the National Institutes of Health, a foundation set up by paralysed actor Christopher Reeve.

Future promise

Boston Life Sciences is trying to get approval to market a product in the US.

"We hope to have inosine in the clinic sometime next year for the treatment of stroke and other cns disorders,'' said Dr Marc Lanser, chief scientific officer of BLSI.

The researchers are also homing in on the gene that may be the "master switch" itself.

"We believe we have got it," Dr Benowitz said. "Our next step is to clone it and produce many copies of it so that we can find out exactly what it does.

"It is a very exciting and fast-moving field. In five to ten years we may have an effective treatment that restores a lot of function after major spinal injury, not 100% but a lot better than anything we currently have."

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See also:

01 Apr 99 | Sci/Tech
Cut nerves repaired in animals
14 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Paralysis 'cure' promised
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