A new approach to nerve repair has restored breathing to rats with spinal cord injury.
Scientists believe the same technique could help human patients who have to rely on ventilators, leaving them vulnerable to dangerous infections.
“We’ve shown for the very first time that robust, long distance regeneration can restore function of the respiratory system fully,” said lead researcher Professor Jerry Silver, from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, US.
The researchers used a section of peripheral nerve to “bridge” a break in the spinal cord which had paralysed half the diaphragm, the sheet-like muscle that enables breathing.
A bacterial enzyme was then used to drill tunnels through the scar tissue at the injury site, allowing neurons to grow.
Nearly 3,000 severed nerves entered the “bridge” and between 400 and 500 grew out the other side.
“All the nerves hook up with inter-neurons and somehow unwanted activities are filtered out, but signals for breathing come through,” said Prof Silver. “The spinal cord is smart.”
After three months, 80% to 100% of breathing function had been restored, the scientists reported in the journal Nature.
Prof Silver hopes to begin human trials soon after more research.
His laboratory has also begun preliminary work to restore bladder function, the top request of people with lower spinal cord injuries .