Scientists develop an 'EpiPen' for brain and spinal cord injuries

This new research could help individuals recover from one of the most dreaded types of injury.

spinal cord injury
  • Brain and spinal cord injuries are notoriously difficult to treat, with many existing methods of treatment provoking undesirable side effects.
  • Now, new research demonstrated a novel technique using nanoparticles to "program" the body's immune cells such that they don't cause any unintended damage and promote healing.
  • Since they don't involve any pharmaceuticals, the use of nanoparticles circumvents the dangerous side effects of other treatments.


Let's say you're painting your house. You're doing this by yourself because, let's face it, you don't want to pay for professional painters, and nobody really wants to help you paint your house. You reach out to get that one spot that's just a little bit out of reach because climbing down to move the ladder is just too much of a hassle, but it turns out you may have overestimated just how far away that spot was because now the ladder's tipping a bit. You try to swing back, but it's too late — you're falling through the air 20 feet down to your concrete driveway. You land on your back, hearing a sickening crack before losing consciousness.

Things could get very bad. Depending on the extent of the damage, you might not be able to walk anymore. However, new research has demonstrated a potential method of treatment that might make this hypothetical accident less grievous: an "EpiPen" for spinal cord injuries.

Researchers from the University of Michigan recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that describes an incredible device capable of mitigating — and potentially preventing — spinal cord and brain injuries. "In this work," said researcher Lonnie Shea in a statement, "we demonstrate that instead of overcoming an immune response, we can co-opt the immune response to work for us to promote the therapeutic response." By injecting nanoparticles that reduce the body's immune response, these researchers claim that the severity of such an injury can be significantly reduced, potentially preventing paralysis.

How do spinal cord injuries happen?

Lifeguards learn what to do in case of a spinal injury at an in-service emergency training class at the Woodland Pool, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 31, 2012. The 20th Medical Operations Squadron instructed this exercise.

Image source: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Nicole Sikorski / Released

Most people think of paralysis as occurring when the connection between your brain and spinal cord is severed, that when you break your back, you also sever the spinal cord. This can happen, but often, the culprit is the body's own inflammatory response to an injury. The brain and spinal cord are normally surrounded by a barrier — commonly known as the blood-brain barrier, but it covers the spinal cord as well — that blocks the central nervous system off from most molecules, including immune cells. The nervous system is an extremely sensitive part of the body, so it can be easily damaged by the immune system's inflammatory response.

During a traumatic injury to the spinal cord, however, this barrier can be broken, allowing access to the body's immune cells. These cells aren't supposed to have access to the nervous system, and the inflammation they produce can kill the sensitive neurons within, damage the myelinated sheaths that allow neurons to send signals to one another, and cause scar tissue that prevents the regeneration of the spinal cord. The result is loss of sensation and reduced function in parts of the body below the injury, sometimes to the extent of paralysis.

How does this new treatment work?

Previously, doctors used a steroid called methylprednisolone to tamp down the immune response, much like how EpiPens are used to avert an allergic reaction. This method had some serious side effects though, causing blood clots, pneumonia, and other effects at a rate that made it too dangerous to rely on.

That's why Shea and colleagues tested out their new solution of nanoparticles on mice at the University of Michigan. The benefit of using nanoparticles is that there are no pharmaceuticals involved, cutting down on the possibility of side effects.

After injecting the injured mice, the researchers observed as the nanoparticles bound to the inflammatory immune cells and redirected them away from the injury site, where they could cause grievous harm. Not only did this prevent damaging inflammation, this approach also allowed non-inflammatory immune cells that support regeneration to reach the injury site. Without the inflammation and the subsequent formation of scar tissue, these cells could support the regrowth of the damaged nervous system.

While this nanoparticle-based treatment was targeted at spinal injuries, it may have other applications as well. "Hopefully, this technology could lead to new therapeutic strategies not only for patients with spinal cord injury but for those with various inflammatory diseases," said Jonghyuck Park, who also worked on the project.

Inflammation is an important part of the immune response. It causes blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood and immune cells to reach the targeted site. These cells release chemical signals that attract more immune cells which work to clear the body of foreign material. But this process often goes awry and can contribute to many other conditions.

"The immune system underlies autoimmune disease, cancer, trauma, regeneration — nearly every major disease," Shea said. "Tools that can target immune cells and reprogram them to a desired response have numerous opportunities for treating or managing disease."

So, this new method of treating spinal cord injuries might make any hypothetical ladder accidents much less dangerous. Not only that, but it has the potential to seriously change the way that we treat some of humanity's deadliest diseases.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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