A succesful treatment for simple spinal cord injuries could be available in the next five years, University of Wollongong researchers hope.
A multidisciplinary, multinational team has received $24 million from Canada's New Frontiers in Research Fund to investigate using biomaterials to heal spinal cord injuries.
These affect about half a million people per year globally, and cost Australians at least $2 billion a year.
A key challenge in treatment is repairing the gap which forms when the spine is broken. This gap blocks nerve impulses, leading to health issues such as paralysis, loss of blood pressure, bladder and bowel control, sexual dysfunction, and chronic pain.
Professor Gordon Wallace, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at UOW, leads the Australian part of the team.
He has been involved in spinal cord injury treatment research for decades, and says the Mend the Gap project could change lives within the next five years.
"We've learned over the past 20 years we can only have some success if we bring minds together, from clinicians to scientists, engineers and regulators," he said.
"It requires a lot of input from different fields to be confident we can make an impact - in this team we have that."
Repairing the spinal cord is difficult because of scar tissue, so a soft gel created by the global team will contain drugs that modify the tissue and revive nerve fibres.
A surgical robot will inject the gel into the spinal cord. It also contains tiny magnetic rods that are aligned using an external magnet, creating guide rails that support the nerve fibres to grow in the right direction, eventually crossing the gap.
"I don't expect a miraculous cure, but I do think we can get real outcomes for those with simpler injuries," Prof Wallace said.
"That success would provide us, and others, with a platform of knowledge to tackle more complex injuries."
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