Lucky dogs help spinal cord injury research

Published: December 3, 2004  |  Source: indystar.com
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Injured animals received a polymer that lets nerve cells repair selves in Purdue/Texas study.

Madeline and Fred Pernell will never know exactly what happened with Rusty. They came home from a shopping trip and found their miniature dachshund dragging his back legs.

He was paralyzed. It looked bleak. Their veterinarian couldn’t offer much hope.

That was about three years ago.

Thursday, the little dog was yapping happily and has long been back to scampering about the Pernells’ yard in Kokomo.

He is one of the success stories of a Purdue University study that offers hope for humans who suffer severe spinal cord injuries and face paralysis.

Led by Richard Borgens, director of the Center for Paralysis Research in Purdue’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the study involved the injection of a substance called polyethylene glycol, or PEG for short.

The substance, which can be likened to “liquid plastic,” helps prevent additional deterioration if it’s administered within 72 hours of an initial injury.

The study, which also involved researchers at Texas A&M University, was published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma.

Borgens has yet to receive approval for testing the substance on humans, so practical application is likely years away. But he is hopeful.

“I dream of it hanging in solution in an IV in the ambulance itself,” Borgens said.

That’s because the best results appear to come if the substance is administered as soon as possible after an injury that involves crushing or severe bruising of the spinal cord.

The polymer can’t be used weeks, months or years after an injury; it must be administered within 72 hours.

PEG acts as a kind of “molecular Band-Aid,” Borgens explained. Injury causes “holes” in nerve cell membranes in the spinal cord. PEG seals the hole, sort of the way liquid soap creates a film on the round part of a bubble wand. That patch lets the nerve cell reconstruct itself. PEG is flushed out of the body within about two hours, Borgens said.

Researchers previously had tested PEG on guinea pigs. Beginning in 2001 and through last year, research was conducted on 19 dogs that sustained severe spinal cord injuries. All of the injuries occurred in accidents, Borgens emphasized — none of the dogs was deliberately injured for the research.

In each case, the dogs were taken to their veterinarian soon after the injury and then referred to one of the participating universities.

That’s what happened with Rusty. Madeline Pernell said they got the little dog to their vet, who suggested back surgery — at a cost of about $2,500. The Pernells, who are retired, couldn’t afford that, so their vet referred them to Purdue. Rusty immediately had surgery and was administered the experimental substance.

The Pernells visited him at Purdue, where he was walking, with support, about four days after the procedure, she recalled.

Rusty came home after about 10 days, and the Pernells were to continue walking him with support from a sling. But the day they got him home and went to take him to the back yard in his sling, it got tangled. As Fred Pernell tried to fix it, the dog took charge.

“Rusty just took off walking,” Madeline Pernell said. “It surprised us so much, I called Purdue right away. I said, ‘Rusty’s walking!’ They were real happy.

“He’s out walking and running around right now.”

By Diana Penner
Call Star reporter Diana Penner at (317) 444-6249.