Nerve discovery could aid paralysis patients

Torn spinal nerves can be reconnected by removing a "biological brake" on their growth, scientists have shown.

The research, conducted in mice, points the way to restoring movement in paralysed victims of back and neck injuries.

Researchers in the United States focused on a protein that turns off the growth of nerve fibres in adults. By genetically deleting the protein, an enzyme called PTEN, they were able to switch back on the ability of spinal nerves to regenerate.

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The scientists are now investigating whether the technique can restore movement to mice crippled by spinal cord injuries. Further research will explore the possibilities of developing a drug that can block the enzyme.

The findings are reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Study leader Professor Oswald Steward, from the University of California at Irvine, said: "Until now, such robust nerve regeneration has been impossible in the spinal cord.

"Paralysis and loss of function from spinal cord injury has been considered untreatable, but our discovery points the way toward a potential therapy to induce regeneration of nerve connections."

Prof Steward is director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Centre, named after former Superman star Christopher Reeve who was paralysed in a riding accident.