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(Credit: Ai-Sun Tseng and Michael Levin-Tufts University)

Drug Treatment Triggers Sodium Ions to Regrow Nerves and Muscle

Sodium gets a bad rap for contributing to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Now biologists at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences have discovered that sodium also plays a key role in initiating a regenerative response after severe injury. The Tufts scientists have found a way to regenerate injured spinal cord and muscle by using small molecule drugs to trigger an influx of sodium ions into injured cells.

The approach breaks new ground in the field of biomedicine because it requires no gene therapy; can be administered after an injury has occurred and even after the wound has healed over; and is bioelectric, rather than chemically based.

In a paper appearing as the cover story of the September 29, 2010, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, the Tufts team reported that a localized increase in sodium ions was necessary for young Xenopus laevis tadpoles to regenerate their tails – complex appendages containing spinal cord, muscle and other tissue.

Like human beings, who regenerate fingertips only as children, these tadpoles lose the ability to regenerate their tail with age. Most remarkably, it was shown that such “refractory” tadpoles whose tails had been removed could be induced to make a perfect new tail by only an hour of treatment with a specific drug cocktail.

The findings have tremendous implications for treating wounds sustained in war as well as accidental injuries. The treatment method used is most directly applicable to spinal cord repair and limb loss, which are highly significant medical problems world-wide. It also demonstrates a proof-of-principle that may be applicable to many complex organs and tissues.

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