German researchers use designer protein to make paralyzed mice walk again

We don’t cover a lot of science news but this story is pretty intriguing. Researchers at a university in Germany have been able to make paralyzed mice walk again using a designer drug that helped to rebuild severed nerves.

In their search for potential therapeutic approaches, the Bochum team has been working with the protein hyper-interleukin-6. “This is a so-called designer cytokine, which means it doesn’t occur like this in nature and has to be produced using genetic engineering,” explains Dietmar Fischer…

The Bochum team induced nerve cells of the motor-sensory cortex to produce hyper-Interleukin-6 themselves. For this purpose, they used viruses suitable for gene therapy, which they injected into an easily accessible brain area. There, the viruses deliver the blueprint for the production of the protein to specific nerve cells, so-called motoneurons. Since these cells are also linked via axonal side branches to other nerve cells in other brain areas that are important for movement processes such as walking, the hyper-interleukin-6 was also transported directly to these otherwise difficult-to-access essential nerve cells and released there in a controlled manner.

The lead researcher, Dietmar Fischer, told Reuters: “The special thing about our study is that the protein is not only used to stimulate those nerve cells that produce it themselves, but that it is also carried further (through the brain).” And this resulted in mice who could walk again after just a couple of weeks:

Paralyzed animals that received a single injection of the virus began to walk again after 2–3 weeks.

“This came as a great surprise to us at the beginning, as it had never been shown to be possible before after full paraplegia,” says Dr. Fischer.

There are still a lot of unknows. For instance, the research on mice involved animals whose injuries were very recent. It’s not known if the same process would work as well on older injuries. Also, just because this was effective on mice doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on other mammals. Fischer hopes to test it on larger animals and eventually on primates. He said it would be “many, many years” before it could be tested on humans.

This is not the first story about restoring mobility to paralyzed mice. There have been several previous experiments using other methods that have shown some success. Still it’s encouraging that there is the potential for something like this to work down the line. That’s the big takeaway here, not that this will quickly result in restoring mobility to humans with spinal injuries but that it suggests strongly that such a thing is possible using the right designer drugs and treatments.

Here’s video of the German researchers showing one of the previously paralyzed mice walking around a table: