Snapshots of Life: Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Nerve cell on a nanofiber gel

Caption: Mark McClendon, Zaida Alvarez Pinto, Samuel I. Stupp, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

When someone suffers a fully severed spinal cord, it’s considered highly unlikely the injury will heal on its own. That’s because the spinal cord’s neural tissue is notorious for its inability to bridge large gaps and reconnect in ways that restore vital functions. But the image above is a hopeful sight that one day that could change.

Here, a mouse neural stem cell  (blue and green) sits in a lab dish, atop a special gel containing a mat of synthetic nanofibers (purple). The cell is growing and sending out spindly appendages, called axons (green), in an attempt to re-establish connections with other nearby nerve cells.

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Snapshots of Life: Wired for Nerve Regeneration

Nerve cells

Credit: Laura Struzyna, Cullen Laboratory, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Getting nerve cells to grow in the lab can be a challenge. But when it works, the result can be a thing of beauty for both science and art. What you see growing in the Petri dish shown above are nerve cells from an embryonic rat. On the bottom left is a dorsal root ganglion (dark purple), which is a cluster of sensory nerve bodies normally found just outside the spinal cord. To the right are the nuclei (light purple) and axons (green) of motor neurons, which are the nerve cells involved in forming key signaling networks.

Laura Struzyna, a graduate student in the lab of NIH grantee D. Kacy Cullen at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, is using laboratory-grown nerve cells in her efforts to learn how to bioengineer nerve grafts. The hope is this work will one day lead to grafts that can be used to treat people whose nerves have been damaged by car accidents or other traumatic injuries.

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Regenerative Medicine: New Clue from Fish about Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Zebrafish Spinal Cord

Caption: Tissue section of zebrafish spinal cord regenerating after injury. Glial cells (red) cross the gap between the severed ends first. Neuronal cells (green) soon follow. Cell nuclei are stained blue and purple.
Credit: Mayssa Mokalled and Kenneth Poss, Duke University, Durham, NC

Certain organisms have remarkable abilities to achieve self-healing, and a fascinating example is the zebrafish (Danio rerio), a species of tropical freshwater fish that’s an increasingly popular model organism for biological research. When the fish’s spinal cord is severed, something remarkable happens that doesn’t occur in humans: supportive cells in the nervous system bridge the gap, allowing new nerve tissue to restore the spinal cord to full function within weeks.

Pretty incredible, but how does this occur? NIH-funded researchers have just found an important clue. They’ve discovered that the zebrafish’s damaged cells secrete a molecule known as connective tissue growth factor a (CTGFa) that is essential in regenerating its severed spinal cord. What’s particularly encouraging to those looking for ways to help the 12,000 Americans who suffer spinal cord injuries each year is that humans also produce a form of CTGF. In fact, the researchers found that applying human CTGF near the injured site even accelerated the regenerative process in zebrafish. While this growth factor by itself is unlikely to produce significant spinal cord regeneration in human patients, the findings do offer a promising lead for researchers pursuing the next generation of regenerative therapies.

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Stem Cell Research: New Recipes for Regenerative Medicine

Cartilage and bone formation from stem cells

Caption: From stem cells to bone. Human bone cell progenitors, derived from stem cells, were injected under the skin of mice and formed mineralized structures containing cartilage (1-2) and bone (3).
Credit: Loh KM and Chen A et al., 2016

To help people suffering from a wide array of injuries and degenerative diseases, scientists and bioengineers have long dreamed of creating new joints and organs using human stem cells. A major hurdle on the path to achieving this dream has been finding ways to steer stem cells into differentiating into all of the various types of cells needed to build these replacement parts in a fast, efficient manner.

Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers has reported important progress on this front. The researchers have identified for the first time the precise biochemical signals needed to spur human embryonic stem cells to produce 12 key types of cells, and to do so rapidly. With these biochemical “recipes” in hand, researchers say they should be able to generate pure populations of replacement cells in a matter of days, rather than the weeks or even months it currently takes. In fact, they have already demonstrated that their high-efficiency approach can be used to produce potentially therapeutic amounts of human bone, cartilage, and heart tissue within a very short time frame.

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Building a Better Scaffold for 3D Bioprinting

A bioprinted coronary artery

Caption: A bioprinted coronary artery.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

When the heart or another part of the body fails, a transplant is sometimes the only option. Still, the demand for donated organs far outpaces supply, with thousands of people on waiting lists. Furthermore, transplants currently require long term immunosuppression to prevent rejection. Wouldn’t it be even better to create the needed body part from the individual’s own cells? While it may sound too good to be true, research is moving us closer to the day when it may be possible to use 3D printing technology to meet some of this demand, as well as address a variety of other biomedical challenges.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances [1], an NIH-funded team from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, recently modified an off-the-shelf 3D printer to create gel-like scaffolds that could be seeded with living cells to produce coronary arteries, an embryonic heart, and a variety of other tissues and organs.These researchers, of course, aren’t the only ones making progress in the rapidly emerging field of bioprinting. Using more costly, highly specialized 3D printing systems, other groups have crafted customized joints, bones, and splints out of hard, synthetic materials [2], as well as produced tissues and miniature organs by printing and layering sheets of human cells [3]. What distinguishes the new approach is its more affordable printer; its open-source software; and, perhaps most importantly, its ability to print soft, biological scaffolds that set the stage for the creation of custom-made tissues and organs with unprecedented anatomical detail.

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