Paralyzed Muscles Restored by Light-Activated Neurons from Stem Cells

Motor activity or musculoskeletal movement is made possible by the action of the muscles of the body which are in turn activated by specialized nerve cells within the nervous system called the motor neurons. This is the mechanism by which we are able to talk, walk, breath and do our daily activities. Once the body has been damaged or injured by trauma to the brain or spinal cord, or by certain motor neuron diseases, the body may become paralyzed due to temporary or permanent loss of function.

A recent study from UCL and King’s College London has devised a way to restore function to previously paralyzed muscles. In this recent biomedical science engineering innovation, light was used to artificially control the muscles. It was carried out by transplanting specialized motor neurons into injured nerve branches. The neurons were created from custom-tailored embryonic stem cells.

Biomedical engineering expert Dr. Lieberam, co-author of the study, explained that the stem cells were specially made to function as a pacemaker component of the muscle. The cells were equipped with a molecular light sensor which enabled control of the cells using blue light flashes. To be able to survive and adapt to the live environment, a survival gene was built into the specialized stem cells. This enabled them to stay alive and grow to be able to connect to the muscle.

Professor Linda Greensmith of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at UCL’s Institute of Neurology and co-author of the study testified the positive effect of the new technique to previously non-functional muscles. “We saw previously paralyzed leg muscles start to function,” Greensmith said. She further pointed out that the new biomedical engineering technique proves to have great potential in the restoration of function of specific muscle groups which were damaged by traumatic injuries or neurological diseases.

“Within the next five years or so, we hope to undertake the steps that are necessary to take this ground-breaking approach into human trials, potentially to develop treatments for patients with motor neuron disease,” Professor Greensmith stated.

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