Sunday, September 19, 2004

Possible Paralysis Cure Excites Scientists

Sydney - Australian scientists believe they have given fresh hope to the wheelchair-bound by isolating the molecule that stops damaged nerves in the spinal cord from repairing themselves, news reports said on Saturday.

Researchers around the world had suspected one of a number of molecules was blocking the regeneration process. Scientists at Brisbane's University of Queensland, in conjunction with colleagues at the University of Melbourne, think that a protein called EPHA4 is the rogue molecule.

"This looks like it might be the most important molecule discover to date," Professor Perry Bartlett, director of Queensland University's Brain Institute, told The Sydney Morning Herald. "We're fairly excited about it, to say the least."

The spinal cord is the conduit for the central nervous system, which is like a sheaf of wires that transmit messages around the body.

The spinal cord is enclosed in the vertebrae that run down the neck and the back. A broken vertebrae can be repaired, but a severed spinal column leaves the victim with no hope of recovery from the ensuing paralysis.

The Australian researchers found that removing EPHA4 from mice with damaged spinal cords led to recovery. The report said that the test mice were able to grasp objects with limbs that previously were paralysed.

Dr Bartlett said the next task would be to come up with strategies that topped the EPHA4 molecule from triggering in humans in the hours and days after a paralysis-inducing injury.

"If we can block that molecule shortly after accidents, we predict it would lead to regrowth of the nerve processes and therefore lead to recovery of function," he said.

Bartlett did not hold out hope that those already in wheelchairs could be helped. He said more work with mice was needed before trials with humans could begin.