New Gene Therapy Could Stitch Together Damaged Spinal Cords

Here’s the thing about the spinal cord: you’ve only got one. And right now, if you injure it, doctors can’t fix that. All they can do is try to reduce further damage.

But a new, experimental gene therapy may change that. In new research published Thursday, rats paralyzed from spinal cord injuries were able to move their legs and paws again.

When a person’s (or rat’s) spinal cord gets damaged, they may lose some or all of the ability to control certain limbs or parts of their body, depending on where the injury occurred. Typically, a scar blocks the nerve cells on the spine from communicating with each other and with the muscles they control.

The new gene therapy breaks down that scar tissue over the course of a few weeks. Over time, the paralyzed rats who received the treatment were able to climb a ladder and then had enough fine motor control to grab a sugar cube. (And don’t worry, the researchers specify in their paper that rats still got to snack on all the sugar pellets that they weren’t yet able to grab.)

If this were possible to do in humans, it could have a huge impact. “Recovering the use of the hands is the top priority for the majority of individuals living with spinal cord injuries,” researcher Elizabeth Bradbury told The Guardian. “It would enable them to do everyday tasks such as washing and dressing independently, picking up a coffee cup, and would be life changing.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is not yet any way to reverse this damage in humans, but doing so is a big priority for medical researchers. That’s because giving people control over their paralyzed limbs, especially their hands, could be a huge step forward in restoring their ability to live independently. Right now, people may undergo physical therapy or look to prosthetic limbs to restore as much function as possible. But reversing the nerve damage itself would, theoretically, do even more to restore more normalcy to people’s lives.

It’s not yet clear whether that will be possible. The new research represents a pre-clinical trial that was conducted on lab rats — there are still several stages of testing needed to show that the new gene therapy can help humans.

Many new treatments and therapies, no matter how promising they seem, don’t finish the long marathon towards FDA approval. While the results of this preclinical trial are interesting, it’s too early to tell whether this therapy will be any different.

But! These findings are still very cool. Animals with severe nerve damage were able to walk, grasp, and eat sugar again after just a few weeks! Should this work pan out, it could be a game changer for how we handle spinal trauma.