London, Feb 17 : Scientists are on the threshold of a major potential breakthrough in the repair of spinal cord injuries.
The researchers at the University of Cambridge are developing a treatment, which could potentially allow damaged nerve fibres to regenerate within the spinal cord.
The finding may also encourage the remaining undamaged nerve fibres to work more effectively.
Spinal injuries are difficult to treat because the body cannot repair damage to the brain or spinal cord. Although it is possible for nerves to regenerate, they are blocked by the scar tissue that forms at the site of the spinal injury.
The research team believes that it is close to a clinical treatment that could allow nerve fibres to regenerate within the spinal cord and encourage remaining nerve fibres to work more effectively.
The team has found that a bacterial enzyme called chondroitinase can digest molecules within scar tissue to allow some nerve fibres to regrow.
It also promotes nerve plasticity, which means that any remaining undamaged nerve fibres have an increased likelihood of making new connections to bypass the area of damage.
In preliminary tests, the researchers have shown that combining chondroitinase with rehabilitation produces better results than using either technique alone.
"It is rare to find that a spinal cord is completely severed, generally there are still some nerve fibres that are undamaged," BBC quoted Professor James Fawcett, the study's lead researcher, as saying.
"Chondroitinase offers us hope in two ways; firstly it allows some nerve fibres to regenerate and secondly it enables other nerves to take on the role of those fibres that cannot be repaired.
"Along with rehabilitation we are very hopeful that at last we may be able to offer paralysed patients a treatment to improve their condition," Fawcett added.
Dr Yolande Harley, of the charity Action Medical Research which funded the work, said: "This is incredibly exciting, ground-breaking work, which will give new hope to people with recent spinal injuries."