University of Michigan Researchers Develop “EpiPen” for Spinal Cord Injuries

Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered injecting nanoparticles into a spinal cord injury can enhance healing by reprogramming the body’s already aggressive immune cells.  They are calling it an “EpiPen” for trauma.

Steven A. Goldstein Collegiate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Lonnie Shea, comments that this work demonstrates the possibility for overcoming immune response by co-opting the immune response to promote therapeutic response.

Any type of trauma sparks the body’s immune response. In a simple injury, immune cells flourish into the damaged area in order to clear away debris and initiate the body’s natural regenerative process.  The blood-brain barrier typically blocks this type of flurry from getting into the brain but a spinal cord injury jeopardizes the barrier, allowing the overzealous immune cells to create far too much inflammation for ultra-sensitive neural tissues. This eventually leads to rapid death of those neurons which then damages the myelin sheath of nerve fibers, and forms scarring that blocks spinal cord regeneration.

At the end of the day, this all contributes to loss of function lower than the level of the injury.  This broad spectrum encapsulates everything from basic paralysis to sensation loss for most of the 12,000 new spinal injury patients in the United States, every year. 

Past attempts to offset the complications that come from this immune response include strategies like injecting steroids (like methylprednisolone), but the medical industry has mostly discarded this practice as it comes with dreadful side effects. These side effects include blood clots, sepsis, and gastrointestinal bleeding; which means the risks far outweigh the benefits.

In this new therapy, though, the nanoparticles will intercept the immune cells that would normally be on their way to the spinal cord and redirect them away from the injury.  This way the immune cells that have been engineered to be more regenerative will have more direct influence on the spinal cord and its healing process. 

Shea goes on to say, “The immune system underlies autoimmune disease, cancer, trauma, regeneration—nearly every major disease. Tools that can target immune cells and reprogram them to a desired response have numerous opportunities for treating or managing disease.”

The hope, of course, is that continued advancement in technology will lead to better therapeutic strategies, not just for patients who have spinal cord injuries but for those with different inflammatory diseases, as well.