A spinal implant which combines electrical and chemical stimulation to treat paralysis has been successfully tested on rats, with scientists now working towards testing the stretchy and flexible e-Dura implant on humans. Matthew Stock reports.
Scientists in Switzerland proved in 2012 that electrical-chemical stimulation of the spinal cord could restore lower body movement in paralysed rats. Now they're a step closer to making this a possibility for humans with spinal injuries. By applying so-called 'surface implants' directly to the spinal cord, any movement or stretching of the nerve tissues could cause inflammation and, ultimately, rejection of the implant. This is their solution. Called e-Dura, it's a soft and stretchy implant that can be bent and deformed similar to the living tissue that surrounds it. Professor Stephanie Lacour is co-author of the study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STÉPHANIE LACOUR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT EPFL AND CO-AUTHOR OF THE STUDY, SAYING: "One important aspect of our studies is that we design the implant so that it could, one day, be used in a therapeutical context. So we wanted an implant that could stay for quite some time in vivo without inducing any detrimental effect. And so the first question we asked was: is soft making a difference?" E-Dura has a small tube through which neuro-transmitting drugs can be administered to the injured tissue to reanimate nerve cells. Built by on-site engineers, the device is made from silicon substrate covered with stretchable gold electric conducting tracks. Researchers found that when the prototype was implanted into rats' spinal cords it caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. They concede, however, there is one significant hurdle to overcome. (SOUNDBITE) (English) STÉPHANIE LACOUR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR AT EPFL AND CO-AUTHOR OF THE STUDY, SAYING: "There's no link at the moment between the brain; so the motor command between the brain and the actual stimulation pattern on the spinal cord. So we now also have to find a way to link the two so that the person will think about moving and, indeed, the stimulation will be synchronised." The team has set its sights on human clinical trails, and sees potential new therapies for e-Dura to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and pain management.