World's first 3D human spinal cord tissue transplant designed


CATEGORY: Medical advances

The breakthrough, which has been made at Tel Aviv University (TAU), offers new hope for helping people with paralysis to walk again.

Paralysis due to spinal cord injury has long been untreatable. Could scientific advances get affected people back on their feet sooner than imagined? In a world first, researchers at Tel Aviv University have created 3D human spinal cord tissue and implanted it into a laboratory model of long-term chronic paralysis, demonstrating high success rates in restoring walking ability. The researchers are now preparing for the next phase of the study, clinical trials in human patients. They hope that within a few years the artificial tissues will be implanted in people with paralysis so that they will be able to stand and walk again.

How can spinal cord injury be reversed?

"Our technology is based on taking a small biopsy of abdominal fat tissue from the patient," explains Professor Tal Dvir, whose research team led the study. "This tissue, like all tissue in our body, is made up of cells together with an extracellular matrix composed of substances such as collagens and sugars. After separating the cells from the extracellular matrix, we used genetic engineering to reprogramme the cells and return them to a state similar to that of embryonic stem cells, i.e. cells capable of becoming any type of cell in the body".

From the extracellular matrix, the researchers produced a customised hydrogel, which would not evoke any immune response or rejection after implantation. They then encapsulated the stem cells in the hydrogel and, in a process that mimics embryonic spinal cord development, converted the cells into 3D implants of neural networks containing motor neurons.

The human spinal cord implants were then implanted into two different groups of laboratory models: those who had suffered recent paralysis (the acute model) and those who had been paralysed for a long time (the chronic model), equivalent to a year in human terms. After implantation, 100% of the laboratory models with acute paralysis and 80% of those with chronic paralysis regained their ability to walk.

The groundbreaking study was led by Prof. Tal Dvir's research team at the Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology, the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Dvir's lab team includes PhD student Lior Wertheim, Dr. Reuven Edri and Dr. Yona Goldshmit.  Also collaborating were Prof. Irit Gat-Viks of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, Prof. Yaniv Assaf of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Dr. Angela Ruban of the Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions at the Sackler School of Medicine, all of Tel Aviv University. The results of the study were published in the prestigious scientific journal Advanced Science.



Visualization of the next stage of the research - human spinal cord implants for treating paralysis. Photo: Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology

Getting paralysed patients back on their feet

Encouragingly, the model animals underwent a rapid rehabilitation process, at the end of which they were able to walk quite well. This is the first case in the world in which engineered human tissues have generated recovery in an animal model of long-term chronic paralysis, which is the most relevant model for paralysis treatments in humans.

"Our goal is to produce customised spinal cord implants for each paralysed person that allow regeneration of the damaged tissue without risk of rejection," says Prof Dvir.

Based on the revolutionary organ engineering technology developed in Prof. Dvir's lab, Prof. Dvir teamed up with industry partners to create Matricelf ( in 2019. The company applies Prof. Dvir's approach with the goal of making spinal cord implant treatments commercially available for people suffering from paralysis.

Prof. Dvir, director of the Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology, concludes: "We hope to reach the human clinical trial phase in the next few years and ultimately get these patients back on their feet. The company's preclinical programme has already been discussed with the FDA. Since we are proposing an advanced technology in regenerative medicine, and since there is currently no alternative for paralysis patients, we have good reason to expect a relatively quick approval of our technology."

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