Putting a Protein into Overdrive to Heal Spinal Cord Injuries–Scar-Forming Cells (NG2 Glia) Engineered to Overproduce SOX2 Protein Make New Neurons, Improving Recovery in Mouse Model

Using genetic engineering, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) and Indiana University have reprogrammed scar-forming cells in mouse spinal cords to create new nerve cells, spurring recovery after spinal cord injury. The findings, published online on March 5, 2021 in Cell Stem Cell, could offer hope for the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who suffer a spinal cord injury each year. The article is titled “In vivo Reprogramming of NG2 Glia Enables Adult Neurogenesis and Functional Recovery Following Spinal Cord Injury” (https://www.cell.com/cell-stem-cell/fulltext/S1934-5909(21)00059-X). Cells in some body tissues proliferate after injury, replacing dead or damaged cells as part of healing. However, explains study leader Chun-Li Zhang, (https://profiles.utsouthwestern.edu/profile/29691/chun-li-zhang.html ), PhD, Professor of Molecular Biology and a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research at UTSW, the spinal cord typically does not generate new neurons after injury--a key roadblock to recovery. Because the spinal cord acts as a signal relay between the brain and the rest of the body, he adds, its inability to self-repair permanently halts communication between these two areas, leading to paralysis, loss of sensation, and sometimes life-threatening consequences such as an inability to control breathing or heart rate. Dr. Zhang notes that the brain has some limited capacity to produce new nerve cells, relying on progenitor cells to turn on distinct regenerative pathways. Using this knowledge as inspiration, he and his colleagues looked for cells that might have similar potential for regeneration in the spinal cord.
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