New injectable therapy helps repair spinal cord injuries with dancing molecules

A new injectable therapy for spinal cord injury uses specially designed molecules that trigger a healing response in spinal cells. The research team used X-ray characterization at the Advanced Photon Source (APS). This allowed the researchers to determine the structure of these molecules when they come together to form tiny fibers in a liquid solution. Scientists can control the movement of these fibers, allowing the fibers to connect more efficiently to cells in the spine.

The impact

Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide suffer spinal injuries each year, often leading to paralysis. Scientists have been searching for decades for an effective treatment for these injuries. This new injectable treatment reversed paralysis in mice after four weeks on a single dose. If it does the same in humans, it could mean that people with severe spinal cord injuries might have hope of walking again. X-ray characterization techniques and approaches could also help develop other therapeutic approaches that require knowledge of molecular structure.


A critical part of this research into a new treatment for spinal injuries was conducted at APS, a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at Argonne National Laboratory. There, scientists from Northwestern University and Air Force research labs used ultra-bright X-ray beams to study the structure of modified molecules and their behavior together in solution. Injected in liquid form, the molecules came together to form tiny fiber structures (called nanofibers) that surrounded the spinal cord.

In APS studies, researchers found that the movement of molecules in nanofibers could be controlled by altering their chemical structure. It turned out that the molecules that moved the most -; “danced” the most -; were more likely to signal spinal cells via proteins called receptors, resulting in more effective treatment. Knowing the structure of the molecular matrix has allowed researchers to tune the movement of molecules. By making the molecules “dance”, they were more likely to find and engage cell receptors, triggering cells to repair damaged neurons.


Journal reference:

Alvarez, Z. et al. (2022) Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery after spinal cord injury. Science.

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