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Last Updated: Monday, 13 December, 2004, 18:01 GMT
New hope for spine injury victims
Spinal therapy
Damaged spinal cord nerves are encouraged to grow again
People paralysed by spinal injury may one day be able to walk again thanks to pioneering work by British scientists.

Researchers at Cambridge University and Kings College London have found a way to encourage damaged nerves to re-grow. That in turn prompts any surviving nerves to help out, bringing back some useful muscle function.

The basic techniques in the new therapy were developed by Dr James Fawcett and his team at the Brain Repair Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Spinal cord injury experiments were then conducted with colleagues in Professor Steve McMahon's laboratory at King's College London.

Regaining lost function

Dr Fawcett said: "This technology could lead to the first successful treatment for spinal cord injury and should increase the chance of patients regaining some of their lost function after an injury has occurred."

To encourage damaged nerves to grow again the researchers had to overcome an aspect of the body's natural defences, which prevents nerves from recovering.

Damage to nerves in the spinal cord cuts signals from the brain to the muscles, leading to paralysis.

To protect itself from infection the body creates molecules in the scar tissue that actually block nerve regeneration.

The scientists discovered a way of using enzymes - proteins made by cells - that can "eat" the blocking molecules, allowing some nerve fibres to regenerate.

The universities have now licensed their discoveries to American pharmaceutical company, Acorda Therapeutics, in the hope they can use them to develop treatments for people with spinal injuries.

In return the academics would get a share of future profits from the sale of any drugs.

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