Breakthrough in breathing research

One of our funded scientists, Dr Philippa Warren of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, has successfully recovered breathing function in laboratory animals using a combination therapy.

Dr Warren has found that a combination of chondroitinase and brief periods of exposure to conditions of low oxygen (intermittent hypoxia) can completely reverse paralysis in diaphragm muscles and restore normal breathing. The treatment was successful even in animals which had suffered spinal cord injury 18 months before. More than two-thirds of the animals in the study responded to the combined therapy.

Chondroitinase breaks down the scar tissue surrounding the spinal cord injury and the low oxygen level increases the rate and depth of breathing. The combination of the two treatments boosts serotonin levels around the injury site and stimulates the nerve cells. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter,  is naturally produced by the body and is widely known for its role in maintaining mood and reducing anxiety and depression. In this study it has helped to reconnect nerves and reverse the paralysis of the diaphragm.

Although further research will be required to take these findings forward before they can be trialled for human patients, the results are extremely encouraging for people with high-level spinal cord injuries who are reliant on ventilators or have breathing difficulties. High-level neck injuries at the C3-C5 cervical level can cause paralysis of the diaphragm and breathing difficulties, as well as affecting the rest of the body, and unfortunately these are the most common injuries.

The fact that the study treatment was successful in animals injured for more than a year holds out hope for eventual treatments for those living with chronic injuries.

This is very positive news as we come to the end of 2014 and we would like to thank all our supporters for making this research possible.

Dr Warren completed her PhD at Cambridge University with a Nathalie Rose Barr PhD studentship from Spinal Research. She is currently working in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Warren J Alilain at Case Western Reserve University, and collaborated with Professor Jerry Silver and Dr Peter MacFarlane on this project. We are delighted to be supporting the development of her work through this important research.