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Crab shells may heal spinal injuries

Material from crushed up crab and shrimp shells can restore electrical function to damaged guinea pig spinal cords, suggesting it may one day serve as a treatment for spinal cord injuries

Trauma to the spinal cord often results in the deterioration of cell membranes, which then results in cell and tissue death, often leading to paralysis. One way to help eliminate loss of body functions is to seal the deteriorating cell membranes, researchers suggest.

Crab shells
Chitin -- the main component of crustacean exoskeletons and fungi cell walls, previously used to build scaffolding for tissue growth -- has recently been suggested to stimulate spinal cord regeneration in rats.

To see if chitosan, a form of chitin, could help seal cell membranes after spinal cord injury, neuroscientist Youngnam Cho of the Center for Paralysis Research at Purdue University and her colleagues examined the spinal cords of guinea pigs.

After dissection, the researchers soaked a sample of the injured spinal cord fragments in chitosan, and then looked for leakage of lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) -- an intracellular enzyme that is found in cerebrospinal fluid -- to see if the cell membrane was intact.

Surprisingly, the researchers detected only low levels of LDH release from the chitosan-treated cells -- even lower than those treated with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a "well-known cell membrane sealant," Cho said -- suggesting that the cells had been fused and sealed.

Additional work is required
Still, this study published April 16th in the Journal of Experimental Biology raises a lot of interesting questions,Patrick Carr, a neuroscientist at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of North Dakota, said in an email to The Scientist. He added that the mechanisms will require additional work to "extract the subtle nuances" of chitosan's action.

"From this work, scientists must now dig into this issue with gusto" to see how chitosan is working and how broadly the treatment may be applied. "Ultimately," Cho hopes, "we will observe the potential of chitosan to be capable of restoring the integrity of the neuronal membranes after mechanical brain damage."