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Experimental therapy could offer new way to treat spine damage

The combination of stem cells and gene therapy to boost the growth of those cells could lead to a way to treat human spinal cord injuries in the future.

Dr. Scott Whittemore

"When you have a spinal cord injury, depending on the level, the fibers that go from the brain to the muscles are interrupted. Sometimes they're severed and lose the insulation called myelin, making them non-functional to conduct electrical impulses."

Dr. Scott Whittemore of the Unviersity of Louisville says the key to restoring function is re-myelination, or using the stem cells, giving them a genetic boost, and giving them time to mature.

Whittemore continues

"We're taking stem cells, genetically modify them in ways they become very efficient cells to make myelin. We graft those into injured spinal cord so they form new myelin around the de-myelinated areas. This allows those fibers to conduct electrical impulses from the brain to the muscles."

The research has proven successful in rats. In fact, Whittemore and his research team are so far along in this project the national institutes of health renewed their research grant for five years. It's the first extension of its kind ever at U of L.

As part of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, Whittemore and his investigators are working on many prjojects, including looking at ways to prevent the loss of nerve tissue after spinal injury.

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