Regenerative medicine and spinal cord injuries

9 August 2010

The Technology Strategy Board, a UK governmental body responsible for driving technological innovation, has announced a total of £5 million funding to support feasibility research and product development for new regenerative medicine ‘products, tools and technologies’ (see press release). This is the latest in a £21.5m programme of funding for this area of research supported by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Regenerative medicine is a fast-moving field, with applications moving rapidly from skin grafts grown from patients’ own cells to more elaborate tissues and organs such as tracheas (see previous news).
In the US, the government regulator the FDA has given permission for the Geron Corporation to begin the first clinical trial of human embryonic stem cells, an initial safety study of stem-cell derived glial cells as a potential therapeutic for severe spinal-cord injuries. Permission was originally granted early in 2009, but suspended a year ago due to safety concerns arising from animal trials (see Nature news).

Meanwhile, researchers have reported promising signs of spinal cord regeneration in mice with severe spinal cord injuries in Nature Neuroscience, using not stem cell transplantation but a genetic manipulation approach, blocking expression of the PTEN gene that curbs nerve growth. The study showed regenerative growth of damaged spinal cord axons (nerve cells) in mice across the injury site, as well as some growth of new axons, not previously observed in mammalian spinal cord injuries [Liu K et al. (2010) Nat. Neurosci. doi:10.1038/nn.2603]. The authors proposed that a 'rejuvenation' strategy might ultimately be of value in treating similar injuries in humans, although they have yet to demonstrate any restoration of spinal cord function so the approach is very much at the proof-of-concept stage only. 

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