As technology continues to improve, we’re able to correct more complex problems and help improve quality of life in patients like never before. One area that has seen huge strides and could continue to is how we help patients with severe spinal cord injuries. Spinal nerve damage can have devastating consequences, but researchers believe they are on the brink of a new treatment option that could help repair previously irreversible nerve damage.
And the coolest thing about the research is that it’s coming out of our own backyard.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota are expanding on our current abilities when it comes to working with stem cells and the 3D printing process. For years, we’ve had the ability to print plastic implantable devices containing live cells, but researchers at the University of Minnesota wanted to find a way to allow sensitive “neuronal” stem cells to survive the printing process so they can eventually be implanted and work to repair nerve damage.
“No one has been able to print those stem cells where they differentiate into active nerve cells using a 3-D printer,” said Michael McAlpine, a U mechanical engineer who teamed up with Dr. Ann Parr, a neurosurgeon, to lead the research. “The cells have to survive the printing process.”
Reversing Nerve Damage
The team of researchers recently announced that they have come up with a way to print the cells such that 75 percent of the neuronal cells survived the printing process. In essence, the printing technique involves creating stem cell-infused scaffolds that can be coated in hydrogel to preserve the cells during printing.
“3-D printing such delicate cells was very difficult,” said McAlpine. “The hard part is keeping the cells happy and alive. We tested several different recipes in the printing process. The fact that we were able to keep about 75 percent of the cells alive during the 3-D-printing process and then have them turn into healthy neurons is pretty amazing.”
While the findings are a huge step in the right direction for helping patients with spinal nerve damage regain abilities in those nerve, actually applying the technique to a human patient is still years away. The printed pieces need to pass some more tests before animal trials can begin. Assuming spinal nerve damage can be reversed in the animal test groups, then researchers could progress towards a human subject.
There are roughly 17,000 spinal cord injuries reported in the United States each year, and even if the 3-D printing approach only restores limited function, it would be a significant advancement from our current capabilities.
“There’s a perception that people with spinal cord injuries will only be happy if they can walk again,” said Parr. “In reality, most want simple things like bladder control or to be able to stop uncontrollable movements of their legs. These simple improvements in function could greatly improve their lives.”