Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Caption: Mark McClendon, Zaida Alvarez Pinto, Samuel I. Stupp, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

When someone suffers a fully severed spinal cord, it’s considered highly unlikely the injury will heal on its own. That’s because the spinal cord’s neural tissue is notorious for its inability to bridge large gaps and reconnect in ways that restore vital functions. But the image above is a hopeful sight that one day that could change.

Here, a mouse neural stem cell  (blue and green) sits in a lab dish, atop a special gel containing a mat of synthetic nanofibers (purple). The cell is growing and sending out spindly appendages, called axons (green), in an attempt to re-establish connections with other nearby nerve cells.

So, what spurred this particular neural stem cell to reactivate itself? The secret lies in the nanofiber gel. It’s been specially engineered to mimic the structure within a healthy spinal cord, as well as seeded with biochemical signals that naturally prompt the cell to grow and start forming connections.

The image—a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2016 BioArt competition—was taken by Mark McClendon and Zaida Alvarez Pinto, researchers in the lab of Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. They used a scanning electron microscope to capture the image and then colorized the neural stem cell and nanofibers to make it a work of art.

McClendon and Alvarez Pinto hope that this gel, along with other bioengineered materials under development in the Stupp lab, might one day be used to prevent or reverse loss of function in people who suffer severe spinal cord or other nerve injuries.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.