Neurons transmit information in the spinal cord via long axons that grow early in embryogenesis. By maturity, however, many neurons have lost the ability to grow axons; rekindling this capacity remains a major challenge in the spinal injury field. Axons are remarkably long compared to the size of neurons, and require enormous amounts of cellular material. Thus an emerging hypothesis is that general mechanisms of cellular growth, identified previously by other fields such as cancer research, might also be applicable to understanding the success or failure of axon growth. To systematically test this idea we are using cell culture assays and screening equipment provided by Unite 2 Fight Paralysis and Spinal Cord Injury Sucks. Starting from a list of genes that regulate cellular growth in non-neuronal cells, we are delivering these genes to neurons in culture and measuring the effects on the length of axons. Excitingly, these screening assays have identified novel genes that strongly affect axon length, but which have not previously been studied in the nervous system. We have now confirmed the expression of many of these genes in adult neurons, and are currently testing these new gene manipulations in animal models of spinal injury. Overall these data open new directions for progress by identifying potential therapeutic targets to enhance regenerative axon growth.
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