Genes that aid spinal cord healing in lamprey also present in humans

Genes that aid spinal cord healing in lamprey also present in humans

Many of the genes involved in natural repair of the injured spinal cord of the lamprey are also active in the repair of the peripheral nervous system in mammals, according to a study by a collaborative group of scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and other institutions. This is consistent with the possibility that in the long term, the same or similar genes may be harnessed to improve spinal cord injury treatments.

“We found a large overlap with the hub of transcription factors that are driving regeneration in the mammalian peripheral nervous system,” said Jennifer Morgan, director of the MBL’s Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering, one of the authors of the study published recently in Scientific Reports.

Lampreys are jawless, eel-like fish that shared a common ancestor with humans about 550 million years ago. This study arose from the observation that a lamprey can fully recover from a severed spinal cord without medication or other treatment.

“They can go from paralysis to full swimming behaviours in 10 to 12 weeks,” said Morgan.

“Scientists have known for many years that the lamprey achieves spontaneous recovery from spinal cord injury, but we have not known the molecular recipe that accompanies and supports this remarkable capacity,” said Ona Bloom of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

“In this study, we have determined all the genes that change during the course of recovery and now that we have that information, we can use it to test if specific pathways are actually essential to the process,” Bloom said.

The researchers followed the lampreys’ healing process and took samples from the brains and spinal cords at multiple points in time, from the first hours after injury until three months later when they were healed. They analysed the material to determine which genes and signalling pathways were activated as compared to a non-injured lamprey.

As expected, they found many genes in the spinal cord that change over time with recovery. Somewhat unexpectedly, they also discovered a number of injury-induced gene expression changes in the brain. “This reinforces the idea that the brain changes a lot after a spinal cord injury,” said Morgan. “Most people are thinking, ‘What can you do to treat the spinal cord itself?’ but our data really supports the idea that there’s also a lot going on in the brain.”

They also found that many of the genes associated with spinal cord healing are part of the Wnt signaling pathway, which plays a role in tissue development. “Furthermore, when we treated the animals with a drug that inhibits the Wnt signaling pathway, the animals never recovered their ability to swim,” said Morgan. Future research will explore why the Wnt pathway seems particularly important in the healing process.

Source: Marine Biological Laboratory

Reference: Paige E. Herman, and others. Highly conserved molecular pathways, including Wnt signaling, promote functional recovery from spinal cord injury in lampreys. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-18757-1

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