Damage to the spinal cord rarely heals because the injured nerve cells fail to regenerate. The regrowth of their long nerve fibers is hindered by scar tissue and molecular processes inside the nerves. An international team of researchers led by DZNE scientists in Bonn now reports in Science that help might be on the way from an unexpected quarter: in animal studies, the cancer drug epothilone reduced the formation of scar tissue in injuries to the spinal cord and stimulated growth in damaged nerve cells. Both promoted neuronal regeneration and improved the animals’ motor skills.
Nerve cells are wire-like conductors that transmit and receive signals in the form of electrical impulses. This function can be impaired by accidents or disease. Whether or not the affected nerves can recover largely depends on their location: for instance nerve cells in the limbs, torso and nose can regenerate to some degree and regain some or all of their function.
In contrast, the neurons in the brain and spinal cord do not have this ability. If they are damaged by accident or disease, the patient is likely to suffer long-term paralysis or other disabilities. But why is regeneration of these neurons and their long nerve fibers impeded? It is already known that inhibiting factors in newly formed scar tissue and other cellular processes block axon regrowth.