This is an exciting advance in promoting healing of spinal cord injuries. There are no stem cells – ethical or destructive – involved. This is a new technique using micro-surgery and chemicals to influence healing.
UT neurobiology professor George Bittner, the lead researcher, has spent much of the past 40 years working on solutions to nerve damage. He has come up with a method that had paralyzed rats moving their legs within minutes of treatment and walking within days.
“We are very excited and very optimistic,” said Dr. Wesley Thayer, one of Bittner’s collaborators and an assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Vanderbilt University. He said that he expects human trials on the technique within a year.
Trials using the method on the spinal cords of rats are under way at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.
Bittner’s research focuses on newly injured peripheral nerves — the ones outside the brain or spinal cord. When a peripheral nerve is severed by a deep cut or injury, the broken ends begin to close off and seal. But Bittner has developed a technique to interrupt that natural healing process. By using microsurgery and readily available chemicals, including polyethylene glycol, he has been able to keep the nerve endings open and fuse them back together.
“If you completely sever a nerve, the odds of getting anything like full function … are 20 to 30 percent,” said Bittner, 70. “What we have done is solve that problem for rats.”
Bittner also has tested the technique in other animals, including guinea pigs and rabbits, with the same positive results, he said.
This month, Bittner and his team published two articles online in the Journal of Neuroscience Research involving rats who had their sciatic nerve severed. The nerve begins in the lower back and runs down the leg. Within one to seven days, the rats had a dramatic recovery of the functioning of their legs, according to the research.
That improvement persisted over time, Bittner said.