"Our approach is based on a natural mechanism cells have for protecting themselves, called the stress protein response," said Michael Tytell, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and the study's lead researcher. "We believe it has potential for preventing some of the disability that occurs as a result of nervous system trauma and disease."
The research showed that up to 50 percent of the motor and sensory nerve cell death could be prevented in mice with sciatic nerve injury. It is reported in the current issue of Cell Stress and Chaperones, a journal of stress biology and medicine.
"We are on our way to developing a treatment that is effective in preventing motor nerve cell death, which is significant to people because loss of motor neurons means paralysis," said Tytell, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist.
The goal of the work is to prevent or minimize the "secondary" cell death that occurs in the hours and days after a spinal cord or brain injury. During this period, cells surrounding the injury can become inflamed and die, a cascading response that worsens disability.
"There is a lot of cell death that takes place after the initial injury," said Tytell. "If you could prevent that, you would retain a lot more function."
Tytell's approach is to augment the stress protein response, in which cells produce proteins called Hsc70 and Hsp70 that help protect them from death when they are exposed to heat, injury or any other stresses that threaten their normal function.
"This is a way cells have of protecting themselves," he said. "If we can figure out a way to facilitate that response, we could potentially limit the amount of damage that is caused."