Scientists have discovered a new chemical that could help heal nerve damage, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Nature, which offers early hope for one day reversing the paralysis and lost functioning that can stem from nerve injuries.
The compound, named 1938, was created after scientists from University College London, the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and pharma giant AstraZeneca screened thousands of molecules in the company’s chemical library in search of ones that could activate key biological mechanisms controlling cells.
Roger Williams, a senior author of the study from the MRC LMB, said the chemical works by activating one of the “molecular machines” that control how our cells function and are the targets of many different drugs.
In particular, 1938 works by activating an enzyme, phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K), which governs cell growth, is involved in various processes like wound healing and can even be hijacked by cancer cells to help them to grow.
The growth of nerve cells increased significantly when 1938 was added to lab-grown nerve cells, the researchers said, and tests in rats with nerve injuries showed increased recovery and the restoration of some motor function, suggesting a degree of nerve regeneration.
Early research on animals also showed the compound protected against heart damage following traumatic events like a heart attack, which usually result in areas of dead tissue forming that can cause problems later in life even after blood flow is restored.
James Phillips, a professor at UCL’s School of Pharmacy and a senior author of the study, said there is a huge potential for drugs that can “activate PI3K to accelerate nerve regeneration” as there are “currently no approved medicines to regenerate nerves, which can be damaged as a result of injury or disease.”
What To Watch For
Although there are cancer drugs that block the PI3K pathway to hinder tumor growth, the researchers said the clinical potential of the mechanism has not been explored to its fullest potential. Buoyed by the positive findings, the team said they are working on developing new therapies to treat peripheral nerve damage, such as that sustained in serious hand and arm injuries. They are also looking into other ways drugs that activate PI3K could treat other types of nerve damage, including that from spinal cord injury, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases. The findings are promising, particularly for a set of often debilitating issues for which there are no approved treatments, but are preliminary and a great deal of research will be needed to usher them into clinical practice.
Nerve cells, often called neurons, are specialized cells that carry messages around the body. Spread out like an array of electrical wiring, they allow different parts of the body to communicate and are crucial for practically everything a person does, including moving, speaking, sensing and thinking. Unlike many other parts of the body—and unlike some animals, types of salamander, fish and frogs—we cannot easily repair injured neurons or regenerate lost ones. Injuries that damage nerves, for example from car accidents, sports injury or anything like a stroke or heart attack that restricts blood, can be permanent and potentially devastating, though recovery can be possible, at least partially. Paralysis, muscle weakness, numbness and pain are all possible consequences of nerve damage.
Regeneration is one of the ways scientists are looking at helping people with nerve damage. Another way, pursued by the likes of Elon Musk’s Neuralink and implant company Synchron, looks at connecting the human brain with computers to help restore functions lost from nerve damage.
Elon Musk Hopes to Test a Brain Implant in Humans Next Year (NYT)