Mar. 1 - Biologists from the University of Texas have developed a new nerve repair technique that has been shown to restore functionality to the legs of paralyzed rats just minutes after surgery. Ben Gruber reports.
When Crush the lab rat had the nerves to his hind legs severed, his legs stopped working. He was paralysed. But three days later, after a groundbreaking procedure, Crush could walk again. At the onset of the experiment, George Bittner, a professor of biology at the University of Texas, was hopeful, but, he says he remembers his amazement when he saw the results. (SOUNDBITE) (English) GEORGE BITTNER, PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, SAYING: "Wow, this is working better than we had any right to expect. And we really don't know all of the basic mechanisms. That is something that we will have to work out." What Bittner and his team did work out is that their new nerve repair technique allowed Crush and other lab rats to heal more completely and much faster than any other technique currently in use. When a nerve is severed the body's natural response is to seal both ends. What Bittner and his team did was stop that process. They coated the severed nerve endings with a series of chemical solutions which prevented the seal from forming. Then the two unsealed endings are glued back together. Bittner says that just minutes after the procedure, the rat's legs began twitching - three day later it was running. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOUG ENGLISH, PRESIDENT OF THE LONE STAR PARALYSIS FOUNDATION, SAYING: "I guess in the normal evolution of any scientific breakthroughs you have baby steps and what George did represents a leap." Doug English is the President of the Lone Star Paralysis Foundation and a former NFL player whose career was ended by a severe neck injury. He's been following George Bittner's research with great interest. He says his latest accomplishment has life-changing implications. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOUG ENGLISH, PRESIDENT OF THE LONE STAR PARALYSIS FOUNDATION, SAYING: "There will be a time in the not too distant future when someone will receive a horrible spinal cord injury and bring him in, apply George's process right there and give him a couple of days to heal up and walk out of the hospital." Professor Bittner says he is optimistic that his method of reconnecting peripheral nerves can translate into progress for treatment of spinal cord injuries in humans. But, he adds, more research needs to be done. His experiments focused only on nerves that were recently severed although he's hoping that his method combined with other advances in nerve repair, might eventually help those with longer term injuries. (SOUNDBITE) (English) GEORGE BITTNER, PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, SAYING: "We know how to keep severed nerves alive for 5 to 10 days. Now, that doesn't help for 5 to 10 years, but it does mean that this type of approach might be used at least 5 or 10 days after injury. Professor Bittner says the goal is to ensure that, in the future, people who suffer severe nerve damage don't end up losing their ability to walk.. Having demonstrated the effectiveness of his technique in rats, Bittner says he hopes trials in humans can begin within a year. Ben Gruber, Reuters.