Spinal-cord damage that causes paralysis and reduced mobility doesn't always stop with the initial trauma. But there are few treatment options to halt increased deterioration--and there is no cure.
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., have developed a promising new biomaterial that could offer targeted treatment to the damaged spinal cord and tissue, preventing further damage.
In research published in Nature Communications in October, an interdisciplinary team from Rensselaer demonstrated how estrogen--a natural hormone produced in the body--can be polymerized into a slow-releasing biomaterial and applied to nervous system cells to protect those cells and even promote regeneration.
"Estrogen is known to be neuroprotective," says Ryan Gilbert, a professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer and a member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. "After spinal-cord injury, you have all these free radicals that are released and cause the injury to increase over time. We're trying to stop the spread of the injury. It's more of an acute phase treatment we are looking to develop."
By observing nature's methods of protection, Gilbert partnered with Edmund Palermo, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer, to develop a polymer that, when implanted directly on the spinal cord, would target the injured tissue and release estrogen as a therapeutic over a period of years.
The approach is more precise than traditional drugs that often impact the entire system and may induce side effects in other organs.
Conventional methods for making drugs into polymers, known as polypro drugs, weren't ideal for this application, so Palermo and his team used a photo-triggered chemical method to synthesize the estrogen into long polymer chains that, using electric force, could be spun into fibers necessary for implantation along the spinal cord.
The team's new approach is being patented and will enable the researchers to push their exploration even further toward preclinical research, where they can see how their polymerized fibers would work in a living system. Their findings will also help advance research in the area of drug delivery, which is increasingly focused on personalization and precision.
Caption: New research with estrogen is aimed at protecting nervous system cells.