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Research Highlight: Stupp

‘Dancing molecules’ successfully repair severe spinal cord injuries

Researchers led by Professor Samuel Stupp have developed a new injectable therapy that harnesses supramolecular motion to reverse paralysis and repair tissue after severe spinal cord injuries.

In research published in Science, they administered a single injection to tissues surrounding the spinal cords of paralyzed mice. Just four weeks later, the animals regained the ability to walk.

Injected as a liquid, the therapy immediately gels into a complex network of nanofibers that mimic the extracellular matrix of the spinal cord. By matching the matrix’s structure, mimicking the motion of biological molecules, and incorporating signals for receptors, the synthetic materials are able to communicate with cells to trigger regeneration.

“Receptors in neurons and other cells constantly move around,” Stupp said. “The key innovation in our research, which has never been done before, is to control through chemical structure the collective motion of more than 100,000 molecules within our nanofibers. By making the molecules move, ‘dance’, or even leap temporarily out of these structures, also known as supramolecular polymers, they are able to connect more effectively with rapidly moving receptors. This discovery should have broad impact on cell signaling in biomedical therapies.”

In addition to restoring walking ability, the breakthrough therapy dramatically improved severely injured spinal cords in five key ways: (1) The severed extensions of neurons, called axons, regenerated; (2) scar tissue, which can create a physical barrier to regeneration and repair, significantly diminished; (3) myelin, the insulating layer of axons that is important in transmitting electrical signals efficiently, reformed around cells; (4) functional blood vessels formed to deliver nutrients to cells at the injury site; and (5) more motor neurons survived.

The research has been featured by more than 260 media outlets on six continents, including BBC World News, Agence-France Presse, Business Insider, Reuters, and U.S. News & World Report.

For more on the story read Northwestern Now