Scientists have managed to make paralysed mice walk again after repairing nerves in their spinal cords with a new technique that regrows damaged nerves.
Incredibly, the mice went from being completely immobile to walking again just two weeks after the treatment.
Lead researcher Dietmar Fischer said the success came as a "great surprise" as rebuilding spinal nerves had until now been thought impossible.
The revolutionary new therapy that could one day restore full movement to human patients with spinal cord injuries .
The scientists, from Ruhr University Bochum, used gene therapy to regenerate the damaged nerve cells in mice. While there’s a long road before human trials are considered, it’s a huge breakthrough.
Spinal cord injuries in humans, often caused by sports or traffic accidents, leave them paralysed because not all of the nerve fibres that carry information between muscles and the brain are able to grow back.
But the researchers in this new study managed to stimulate the paralysed mice's nerve cells to regenerate using a designer protein.
"The special thing about our study is that the protein is not only used to stimulate those nerve cells that produce it themselves, but that it is also carried further (through the brain)," Dr Fischer told Reuters.
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"In this way," he added, "with a relatively small intervention, we stimulate a very large number of nerves to regenerate and that is ultimately the reason why the mice can walk again."
The paralysed rodents that received the treatment started walking after two to three weeks, he said.
The treatment involves injecting carriers of genetic information into the brain to produce the protein, called hyper-interleukin-6, according to the university's website.
Dr Fischer explained: "Gene therapy treatment of only a few nerve cells stimulated the axonal regeneration of various nerve cells in the brain and several motor tracts in the spinal cord simultaneously.
"Ultimately, this enabled the previously paralysed animals that received this treatment to start walking after two to three weeks.
"This came as a great surprise to us at the beginning," he added, "as it had never been shown to be possible before after full paraplegia.'
The next step will be to find out whether hyper-interleukin-6 still effective on older injuries.
The team is investigating further developments to the technique "We also have to see if our method works on larger mammals. We would think of pigs, dogs or primates, for example," Fischer said.
"Then, if it works there, we would have to make sure that the therapy is safe for humans too. But that will certainly take many, many years."
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