Spine-tingling research

By Sally MacKinnon

Researchers at the University of Calgary are one step closer to reducing the trauma of spinal cord injuries thanks to research into the effects of minocycline, a drug used to treat acne and multiple sclerosis.

Jennifer Wells, a postdoctoral fellow, and Wee Yong, a professor in oncology and clinical neurosciences, have found that minocycline, an anti-inflammatory cortisteroid, can significantly improve limb movement in mice with a spinal cord injury. If these results can be reproduced in human trials, it could enable patients otherwise confined to a wheelchair to regain limb movement and even walk again.

"It provides hope that patients with spinal cord injury will achieve better recovery when confronted with the possibility of permanent paralysis," said Yong.

After the trauma of an acute spinal cord injury, tissue damage can continue as immune-system substances enter the spinal cord. This creates a window of opportunity to introduce minocycline, which appears to inhibit these chemicals’ mechanisms through several anti-inflammatory effects.

"Right now there is very limited treatment for preventing this [chemical degeneration]," said Wells. "Minocycline appears to have the ability to inhibit a lot of the processes that exacerbate the secondary spread of injury and those further disabilities. "

Wells and Yong tested minocycline and a saline solution on mice with an acute spinal cord injury. On a scale of 21, with zero being no movement and 21 full mobility, those given the saline solution averaged a rating of 4. The mice given minocycline, however, scored an average of 10, indicating not only higher mobility but the ability to support some weight.

The drug is already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, however conclusive results on human subjects aren’t likely to be available until 2006. The intention is to inject patients with the drug within eight hours of the trauma, either in the ambulance or emergency room.

John Hurlbert, a neurosurgeon and Associate Professor for the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, hopes to begin human trials as early as January 2004. While minocycline cannot offer the possibility of full recovery, it may one day be able to lessen the damage of spinal cord injuries, the leading cause of disability in young adults.

"The research conducted by Yong and his team brings us a step closer in a worldwide quest to find the cure for paralysis after spinal cord injury," said Hurlbert.

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