Gene Therapy Restores Hand Function After Spinal Cord Injury: Rat Study

Summary: Researchers have successfully restored hand function and motor skills in rats who suffered paralysis as a result of spinal cord injury.

Source: King’s College London.

Researchers at King’s College London have shown that rats with spinal cord injuries can re-learn skilled hand movements after being treated with a gene therapy..

People with spinal cord injury often lose the ability to perform everyday actions that require coordinated hand movements, such as writing, holding a toothbrush or picking up a drink. Regaining hand function is the top priority for patients and would dramatically improve independence and quality of life. No regenerative treatments are currently available.

The researchers tested a new gene therapy for regenerating damaged tissue in the spinal cord that could be switched on and off using a common antibiotic.

Professor Elizabeth Bradbury from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) said: ‘What is exciting about our approach is that we can precisely control how long the therapy is delivered by using a gene ‘switch’. This means we can hone in on the optimal amount of time needed for recovery. Gene therapy provides a way of treating large areas of the spinal cord with only one injection, and with the switch we can now turn the gene off when it is no longer needed.’

After a traumatic spinal injury, dense scar tissue forms which prevents new connections being made between nerve cells. The gene therapy causes cells to produce an enzyme called chondroitinase which can break down the scar tissue and allow networks of nerve cells to regenerate.

Most human spinal cord injuries occur at the neck level and affect all four limbs. The researchers gave the gene therapy to rats with spinal injuries that closely mimicked the kind of human spinal injuries that occur after traumatic impacts such as car crashes or falls.

Dr Emily Burnside from the IoPPN explains: ‘Rats and humans use a similar sequence of coordinated movements when reaching and grasping for objects. We found that when the gene therapy was switched on for two months the rats were able to accurately reach and grasp sugar pellets. We also found a dramatic increase in activity in the spinal cord of the rats, suggesting that new connections had been made in the networks of nerve cells.’

The researchers had to overcome a problem with the immune system recognising and removing the gene switch mechanism. To get around this, the researchers worked with colleagues in the Netherlands to add a ‘stealth gene’ which hides the gene switch from the immune system.

This is active neural connections in rat spinal cord. image is adapted from the King’s College London news release.

Professor Joost Verhaagen at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience says: ‘The use of a stealth gene switch provides an important safeguard and is an encouraging step toward an effective gene therapy for spinal cord injury. This is the first time a gene therapy with a stealth on/off switch has been shown to work in animals.’

The gene therapy is not yet ready for human trials. While the ability to switch a therapeutic gene off provides a safeguard, the researchers found a small amount of the gene remained active even when switched off. They are now working on shutting the gene down completely and moving towards trials in larger species.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The research is funded by the Medical Research Council, the International Spinal Research Trust and Wings for Life, and published in the journal Brain.

Source: Robin Bisson – King’s College London
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is adapted from the King’s College London news release.
Original Research: The study will appear in Brain.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]King’s College London “Gene Therapy Restores Hand Function After Spinal Cord Injury: Rat Study.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 14 June 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]King’s College London (2018, June 14). Gene Therapy Restores Hand Function After Spinal Cord Injury: Rat Study. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 14, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]King’s College London “Gene Therapy Restores Hand Function After Spinal Cord Injury: Rat Study.” (accessed June 14, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. Extremely interesting. After a football playing injury—concucssion–at the age of 15, eventually I diagnosed with Narcolepsy. I would go unconsious in a matter of seconds and not remember anything about it if I did not fall down in a place where I would either injure myself or someone else witness it.

    This occured sporadically, ie once a week or month until after I graduated from high school at the age of 18.

    It started up again at about age 65, 10 years ago, later occasionally including GRAND MAL symptoms. I was stung while volunteering outdoors about 11 or 12 yrs ago; my reaction resulted in emergency people finding me prone and my pulse at 5gm; but it was rising and no action was taken. All standard tests in later years show nothing unusual wrong. Perhaps some scar tissue is hindering functions of (or parts of) my brain now triggered by an unknown accumulation of lack of flow in the neck or brain.

    I was told later that 14 seizures occurred in about 5 days in early March, 2017, age 74. I was monitored for a night and my pulse dipped to 5gpm. The best they could recommend was install a heart pacemaker; I accepted and that was done that afternoon; plus I am taking a dose of Divalproex Sodium. In the last 16 months one known seizure and one maybe. That is 2 too many. If you or anyone you know have a way to stop this from happening, please ask them to contact me. If you think this body might be able to help in the research to find an answer/cure for whatever causes seizures please contact me and I will consider. Bryan

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