Reconstructing the neuronal circuitry of a damaged spine looks like a much closer goal now. The European scientists of the RESCUE project, who for the first time demonstrated the presence of neural precursor cells in the adult human spinal cord, have also proved, by cultivating these cells in vitro, that they can give not just neuron themselves, but also vitally important glial cells such as oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, which provide nourishment and help to control neuronal activity.
All this is of great therapeutic interest, since these adult precursor cells could potentially repair the hitherto irreversible neuronal and glial losses in traumatic lesions, degenerative diseases involving the motor neurons such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or the pathologies of the myelin sheath surrounding the neurons.
So far, injuries to the complex wiring of motor neurons, which are essential not only to all our movements but also to the transmission of sensory signals and the control of visceral functions, have been intractable.
In the future, these adult precursor cells could potentially be grafted to the lesion to regenerate or stimulate lost functions from within. The RESCUE project (Research Endeavour for Spinal Cord in United Europe), which aims to pave the way to therapeutic intervention on spinal cord injuries, has brought together 10 partners from 6 European countries and is funded with 2,7 million euros by the European Commission. Most of its research has focused on human adult stem cells generated by bone marrow and adult CNS, including the spinal cord.
In the Journal of Neuroscience Research, the project scientists explained they had used immunologic markers and electron microscopy in order to prove the presence of neural stem cells in the adult human spinal cord. Now, before therapeutic use can be taken into consideration, science will need to explore the details of the differentiation of these cells. The coordinator, professor Alain Privat, added: “ The therapeutic interest of so-called adult stem cells is now generally acknowledged by the scientific community. Although there is still a long way to go, this work constitutes a major step forward for all the pathologies affecting the motoneurons, for which no treatment exists at present”.
Some 40,000 people in France suffer from spinal cord injuries as a result of an accident, and each year there are an estimated 1,500 new cases of paraplegia or tetraplegia, mostly affecting 25-30 year olds.
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