The ability to internally bridge the gap between two ends of severed spinal cord — not just rely on the support of an external carapace like the Ekso-Suit — would be nothing short of revolutionary for the neurosurgical field. Oh wait, looks like a team from the EPFL has just invented a way to do just that — in mice.
The implantable device, dubbed e-Dura, is the brainchild of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine from Switzerland's École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne research institution. The team had already developed a means of reinvigorating the function of partially severed spinal columns in lab rats through a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation — an incredible feat in its own right. But in order to apply the same method to humans, they'd need to implant a stimulation device directly to the spine for long periods of time.
This has never been possible before — especially in the delicate neurological system beneath the brain and spine's protective "dura mater" level — because any foreign body left in there causes near immediate inflammation and rejection. But the EPFL team's e-Dura device has been designed specifically to avoid rejection. They did so by making it stretchy.
They made it exactly as stretchy as the tissue surrounding it so that rather than sit atop the site like a medical-grade lump, it moves and flexes with the rest of the spine, minimising friction with the dura mater.
"Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralysed following spinal cord injury," Stéphanie Lacour, co-author of the paper explained in a press release.
The team has already successfully implanted a prototype of the device in a rat subject. It's not only been it there for more than two months without the threat of rejection, the device helped get the rat up and walking around again after just a few weeks of training. Should this technology make it past human safety trials, paralysis may one day be as common as polio. [EPFL]