Paralysis cure discovered? Drug developed to treat lung disease repairs spinal cord injuries

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BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — A drug developed by British scientists to treat lung disease may find a new purpose — repairing spinal cord injuries (SCI). Researchers from the University of Birmingham say AstraZeneca’s AZD1236 restored movement and sensation in mice by 85 percent after just three days.

“This drug has the potential to be a first-in-class treatment against some of the key pathological drivers of SCI and could revolutionize the prospects for recovery of SCI patients,” says lead author Professor Zubair Ahmed in a university release.

Estimates show that nearly 18,000 Americans suffer a life-altering spinal cord injury each year — usually as a result of car or sports accident, violence, or a fall. Scar tissue prevents repair by acting like glue, leading to paralysis below the site of the injury.

AZD1236 is a pill originally created to control and reduce the progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Prof. Ahmed and colleagues have now found that it fuels nerve cells, making regeneration possible. After three weeks, the lab rodents reached “unprecedented” levels of recovery — with a dramatic 80 percent preservation of function.

The researchers demonstrated that AZD1236 halts the build-up of excess fluid around the spinal cord, called “edema.” It also reduces the breakdown of the blood-spinal cord barrier (BSCB) and scarring at the site of the injury. Additionally, the drug blocks two enzymes, MMP-9 and MMP-12, which fuel inflammation and hinder healing, leading to nerve cell death.

The drug comes as a pill or injection

Oral doses were almost as effective as injections into the spinal canal, although the latter triggered most suppression in cerebrospinal fluid.

“There is currently no reparative drug available for SCI patients, treatments only provide symptomatic relief and do not tackle the underlying molecular mechanisms that cause or contribute to oedema and blood-spinal cord barrier breakdown,” Prof Ahmed says.

Further analysis revealed the drug blocked the formation of inflammatory chemicals linked to long-lasting neuropathic pain, which often follows spinal cord injury. It was 82 percent better than common painkillers at alleviating sensitivity to cold, heat, and touch.

A paralysis cure could change society

In the U.S., estimates show that there are between 250,000 and 360,000 people living with a spinal cord injury. Damage interrupts the constant stream of electrical signals from the brain to the body.

“Superman” star Christopher Reeve broke his neck in 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Virginia. He was left quadriplegic and died nine years later at the age of 52. Life expectancy after spinal cord injury has not improved significantly since the 1980s.

Fewer than three percent recover basic physical functions. A third are re-hospitalized at least once a year. A complete recovery from a spinal cord injury would have far reaching social and economic benefits for millions of people.

“The work by Professor Ahmed and his team has been supported through our Open Innovation Program and represents a very successful collaboration between academia and industry to bring about the possibility of real benefits to patients affected by SCI, an area of great medical need,” says Dr. Hitesh Sanganee, executive director at AstraZeneca.

“Exploring the potential of AZD1236 for this new indication represents a great outcome for our Open Innovations program and aligns with our ethos of sharing ideas and enabling scientific innovation to cross boundaries between academia and industry will help to translate innovative ideas into scientific breakthroughs and potential new medicines more quickly.”

The British team has filed a patent application for the spinal cord injury therapy described in the journal Clinical and Translational Medicine.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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