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Acrolein may be the key to halting spinal cord damage

Researchers at Purdue University may have isolated the substance most responsible// for the tissue damage that follows initial spinal cord injury, a discovery that could revolututionise treatments for a host of other neurodegenerative conditions.

A research team led by Riyi Shi (REE-yee SHEE) has found that a chemical called 'acrolein', a known carcinogen, is present at high levels in spinal tissue for several days after a traumatic injury. Although acrolein is produced by the body and is non-toxic at normally occurring low levels, it becomes hazardous when its concentration increases, as it often does in tissue that experiences stresses such as exposure to smoke or pesticides. In the case of spinal injury, acrolein's hazard may be the key in causing debilitating paralysis that sets in after the initial trauma.

"When a spinal cord ruptures, not only are the traumatized cells at increased risk of damage from free radicals that oxidize the tissue, but the cells also spill chemicals that actually help the free radicals to launch repeated attacks," said Shi, who is an associate professor of neuroscience and biomedical engineering in Purdue’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. "Our latest research indicates that acrolein may be the primary culprit that enables this vicious cycle. Because acrolein has already been implicated in cancer and neurological diseases, drugs that detoxify it could become important for treating not only spinal cord damage but a host of other conditions as well."

The research, which Shi carried out with his student Jian Luo and Koji Uchida of Japan’s Nagoya University, appears in the (still forthcoming) March 2005 issue of the scientific journal Neurochemical Research.

Free radical molecules are well-known enemies of bodily health, and for years, physicians have recommended a diet rich in antioxidants – such as vitamins C and E – which are able to attach them
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