New injectable therapy helps repair spinal cord injuries with dancing molecules

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A new injectable therapy for spinal cord injuries uses specially engineered molecules that trigger a healing response in spinal cells. The research team used X-ray characterization at the Advanced Photon Source (APS). This allowed the researchers to determine the structure of these molecules as they come together to form tiny fibers in a liquid solution. Scientists can control the motion of these fibers, allowing the fibers to connect more effectively with cells in the spine.

The Impact

Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide suffer spinal injuries every year, often leading to paralysis. Scientists have been searching for decades for an effective treatment for these injuries. This new injectable treatment reversed paralysis in mice after four weeks with just a single dose. If it does the same in humans, it could mean that people living with severe spinal injuries may have a hope of walking again. The techniques and approaches to characterization with X-rays could also help develop other therapeutic approaches requiring insights on the molecular structure.


A critical portion of this research into a novel treatment for spinal injuries was conducted at the APS, a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at Argonne National Laboratory. There, scientists from Northwestern University and the Air Force Research Laboratories used ultrabright X-ray beams to study the structure of the engineered molecules and how they behaved together in a solution. Injected as a liquid, the molecules came together to form tiny fiber structures (called nanofibers) that surrounded the spinal cord.

In the APS studies, the researchers discovered that the motion of molecules within the nanofibers could be controlled by changing their chemical structure. It turned out that molecules that moved most -;"danced" more -; were more likely to signal spinal cells via proteins called receptors, resulting in a more effective treatment. Knowing the structure of the molecular matrix allowed researchers to tune the motion of the molecules. By making the molecules "dance," they were more likely to find and engage cellular receptors, triggering the cells to repair damaged neurons.

Journal reference:

Alvarez, Z., et al. (2022) Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery from spinal cord injury. Science.


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