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New Pathways Studied to Repair Nerves
Date:11/6/2008

Two different approaches seek to interfere with mechanisms that inhibit cell regeneration

THURSDAY, Nov. 6 (HealthDay News) -- Nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain can't be repaired now if they are severed or damaged, but two ways to get them to grow again are being proposed by separate groups of researchers.

The basic idea of both approaches is to interfere with the built-in mechanisms that prevent nerve cell regeneration. One approach attacks it from the outside of nerve cells, the other from the inside.

Zhigang He, an associate professor of neurology at Children's Hospital Boston, a teaching affiliate of Harvard University, compared the two approaches to different ways of starting a stalled auto.

"Their idea is that something is blocking the highway," said He, lead author of one of the two papers in the Nov. 7 issue of Science. "Our mechanism deals with possible engine trouble."

Growth controls are built into the genes of nerve cells, He said. His group has identified two of the key genes that inhibit the major growth pathway in nerve cells. When those two genes are knocked out, cells that are damaged or severed can grow new axons, the pathways that carry messages from cell to cell.

A study in which mice whose optic nerves were damaged showed up to 50 percent of those cells engineered to lack the two growth-inhibiting genes survived, compared to 20 percent of the cells carrying those genes. Significant axon growth was seen in up to 10 percent of the mice lacking the genes.

Genetic engineering is not necessary to achieve that kind of nerve growth, He said. "In the future, we could have small-molecule drugs to activate these pathways," He said. "Other people have studied this pathway already, and there are quite a few possible targets."

He's group has started to work with some candidate compounds. "It's too early to say if these compounds would be effective," he
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