- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Scientists have used stem cells and a potion of nerve-friendly chemicals to bridge a damaged spinal cord and regrow the circuitry needed to move a muscle, helping partially paralyzed rats walk.

Years of additional research are needed before such an experiment could be attempted in people.

But the work marks a tantalizing step in stem-cell research that promises to one day help repair damage from nerve-destroying illnesses such as Lou Gehrig’s disease or from spinal-cord injuries.

“This is an important first step, but it really is a first step, a proof of principle that … you can rewire part of the nervous system,” said Dr. Douglas Kerr, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University who led the work, which will be published Monday in the journal Annals of Neurology.

Perhaps most importantly, the experiment illustrates that if stem cells live up to their promise, the treatment won’t be simple. The cells can’t just be injected into a diseased body and help repair it on their own.

Instead, the research details a complex recipe of growth factors and other chemicals that entice the delicate cells to form the right kind of tissue and make the right kinds of connections. Miss a single ingredient and the cells wander aimlessly, unable to reach the muscle and make it move.

The study may bring “the appropriate tempering of expectations of stem cells,” said Dr. Kerr, considered a leader in the field. “Some of my patients say, ‘Oh, I’m going to pull into the stem-cell station and get my infusion of stem cells,’ and it’s never going to be that.”

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