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Most of us hope that one day a cure will be found and those with spinal injuries will be able to get out of their chairs and walk. Everyone I met with a high spinal cord injury just wished for one thing - to be able to control their own bodily functions, and that means controlling their bladder and bowels without the help of others - walking was further down their wish list. Most researchers aim, not for the miracle "get out of your chair and walk" scenario, but to be able to "lower" the level of the lesion; which means that a quadriplegic would regain the use of their arms, and a paraplegic would get back the use of their legs.
Every now and then stories appear in the press which indicate that a new discovery has been made and a "break-thorough" is imminent, but most of those involved in spinal cord research know that any solution to the problem is going to be extraordinarily complex and will need many different factors to be controlled at the same time in order for progress to be made. Much is made of "Stem Cell" technology and the hope it offers, and these multi-potential cells do offer an Aladdin cave of possibilities, but put in crude terms, they are only the scaffolding and wiring of what is required. How do the nerves know in which direction to grow? How will they be able to recognize which cells to re-connect to? When will they know when to stop growing? And of course there have been ethical concerns about using Human Embryonic Stem Cells. But a recent report suggests that there may be an alternative to Embryonic Stem cells, and this would involve using stem cells derived from the Umbilical Cord, and hence overcome any ethical issues.
Hedvika Davis, a postdoctoral researcher in Hickman's lab, set out to transform umbilical stem cells into oligodendrocytes - critical structural cells that insulate nerves in the brain and spinal cord, and has developed a way of doing that using environmental as well as chemical stimulation. Whilst in theory, the injection of such cells into the damaged spinal cord might help to promote healing, the results are still a long way from being a cure for this devastating problem. But Dr Davies is more hopeful that her research will also lead to better management of Multiple Sclerosis, a disease where nerve cells lose their Myelin covering, a process that damages their ability to transmit electrical impulses. Oligodendrocytes produce Myelin, and the hope is that these umbilical cells can be turned into cells that can help repair the cells damaged in Multiple Sclerosis.
So often often these discoveries seem like a drop in the ocean when compared to the enormous obstacles that confront them: but as a well known researcher I know often says, "That's what the ocean is made up of, a lot of drops"!