A major step towards repairing the spinal cord

OECs_smResearchers at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia and their collaborators reveal that they’re a step closer to optimizing cells able to guide regeneration of the spine

The olfactory system is an area of the body that can renew itself, and it does this by using olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) to guide newly formed axons – long projections of nerve cells – towards the body’s central nervous system. Naturally, researchers have already tried transplanting OECs to the spine, to see if this ability also works to promote axonal regeneration in spinal cord injuries and neural diseases.

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But in this environment, the good work of the OECs is curtailed by the persistent presence of inhibitory molecules that impede not only their guiding abilities, but also the regrowth of axons.

Image: Cultured OECs used in the study

In a paper published in Cell Mol Life Sci last week, the researchers reveal that a particular molecule, chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans or CSPG for short, causes this impediment by adversely affecting the migratory abilities of the OECs. The researchers already knew that OEC migration is also inhibited by the insulating material myelin, but this could be overcome by engineering a batch of OECs that over-produce the Nogo receptor protein, which abolishes the inhibitory properties of myelin. These OECs, when introduced into damaged spinal cords, are able to migrate longer distances in this inhibitory post-lesion environment.

“We already knew how to deal with myelin and stop it inhibiting OEC migration,” says José Antonio del Rio of IBEC’s Molecular and Cellular Neurobiotechnology group, which led the study. “Now we know we have to try to do the same thing with CSPG, so that we can move closer to having OECs with their full migratory capabilities intact.”

The work was carried out by members of no fewer than three research groups at IBEC, combining the neural expertise of Prof. del Rio’s Molecular and Cellular Neurobiotechnology group, the cell migration know-how of IBEC’s Integrative Cell and Tissue Dynamics group, and technologies lent by the Nanobioengineering group, as well as their collaborators at the Autonomous Universities of Barcelona and Madrid. The results constitute a prime example of what can result from the wealth of different disciplines at work at IBEC, whose research staff includes physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and computer scientists all under the same roof.

The work was supported by the La Caixa foundation, as it comprises part of the institutional project “Sistemes de diagnòstic i teràpia basats en la integració de noves tecnologies nano bio info i cogno”. IBEC is one of just five centres to have received funding in the bank’s pilot scheme to fund research evaluation and technology transfer activities.

Reference article: D. Reginensi, P. Carulla, S. Nocentini, O. Seira, X. Serra, A. Torres-Espín, R. Gavín, M.T. Moreno-Flores, F. Wandosell, J. Samitier, X. Trepat, X. Navarro, J.A. del Río. (2015). Increased migration of olfactory ensheathing cells secreting the Nogo receptor ectodomain over inhibitory substrates and lesioned spinal cord. Cell Mol Life Sci., 72 (14): 2719-37