Spinal cord injuries are devastating, but new research using biomaterials could help spinal injury patients recover some of their lost motor skills and functionality.

A $24 million research investment from Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund has given a team of researchers at The University of British Colombia the opportunity to revolutionise spinal injury treatment by creating a ‘bridge’ in gaps in the spine caused by injury.

The challenge of spinal cord injury

Each year, about 600 people in the UK suffer acute traumatic injuries to the spinal cord. Often caused by trauma, such as traffic accidents, sporting injuries and domestic accidents, these injuries can result in paraplegia and quadriplegia—paralysis of limbs below and above the spinal column—and loss of sensation. When the spine is broken, people can be left with a gap in the spine. This gap means that nerve impulses that control motor functions are prevented from getting through. Many people with spinal injuries live with loss of movement, bladder and bowel problems, sexual dysfunction and severe pain.

Though many improvements can be seen with intensive and ongoing rehabilitation, which aims to help individuals regain some or all their lost capabilities, spinal injuries can have devastating effects on an individual’s quality of life.

Mind The Gap at The University of British Colombia

A multidisciplinary team at the University of British Colombia called Mind The Gap https://mendthegap.ubc.ca/ is using soft gel biomaterials, injected at the injury site by a surgical robot equipped with machine-vision, to create a kind of bridge to help nerve fibres grow.

Professor of electrical and computer engineering, Dr John Madden, said:
“A biomaterials bridge is compatible with other systems and structures in the body and is minimally disruptive. The soft gel that our team plans to use contains tiny magnetic rods that are aligned using an external magnet, creating guide rails that support the nerve fibres to grow in the right direction, eventually crossing the gap.”

Scar tissue can complicate the already difficult challenge of repairing the spinal cord, so the soft gel will be infused with drugs to change the scar tissue and revive nerve fibres.

Although this research is at an early stage, the Mind The Gap team believe their approach will help people suffering from spinal cord injuries regain lost motor function over time. It’s an exciting first step in treating this debilitating condition that affects thousands of people every year.

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