Nanomedicine Shows Promise for Treating Spinal Cord Injuries

Purdue University researchers have uncovered a new approach for repairing nerve fibers damaged in spinal cord injuries, according to ScienceDaily. In this approach, “nano-spheres” would be injected into the blood soon after the accident.

The nano-spheres, or “copolymer micelles,” are drug-delivery spheres approximately 60 nanometers in diameter. That’s 100 times smaller than the diameter of a red blood cell - ultra-microscopic.

Other researchers have been studying these nano-spheres as ways to deliver medications for various diseases. Purdue University researchers were surprised to find that the nano-spheres themselves can repair damaged axons. Axons are the neuronal fibers that transmit electrical impulses in the spinal cord.

“That was a very surprising discovery,” said researcher Ji-Xin Cheng. “Micelles have been used for 30 years as drug-delivery vehicles in research, but no one has ever used them directly as a medicine.”

Previous research has shown the polyethylene glycol (PEG) is effective in treating animals with spinal cord injuries. The PEG acts as a “membrane sealing agent.” Studies show that PEG specifically targets damaged cells and seals the injured area to reduce further damage. This process also helps to restore function.

PEG is a component of the copolymer micelles. PEG makes up the outer shell of the micelles - but micelles work much more efficiently than PEG alone.

“With the micelles, you need only about 1/100,000th the concentration of regular polyethylene glycol,” said Cheng.

The current study showed that the micelles boosted the axon recovery to 60 percent, compared to 18 percent without micelle treatment, in a “double sucrose gap recording chamber” study designed to mimic what happens in a traumatic spinal cord injury. The chamber showed how well the micelles repaired damaged nerve cells by measuring the ability to transmit signals.

This study suggests that micelles might be used to repair axon membranes damaged in spinal cord injuries. In animal experiments, animals treated with micelles recovered the coordinated control of all four limbs.

The research paper appears in the November 8 issue of Nature Nanotechnology. The paper was authored by was written by Yunzhou Shi, postdoctoral researcher Sungwon Kim of the Department of Industrial and Physical Pharmacy, chemistry graduate student Terry B. Huff, Borgens, Park, Rihi Shi and Cheng. The work was funded by Purdue and the Indiana Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Fund.

Future research along these lines will examine the specific mechanisms by which micelles restore function to damaged nerve cells in spine injuries.

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