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From Italy (Naturally), Spinal Implants Shaped Like Pasta

“The bucatini project” restored the ability to walk in paraplegic rats. Could humans be next?

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To a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. And to certain Italian biomedical researchers, if you’ll allow some liberties while we extend the analogy, the key to curing paraplegia is, well, spaghetti.

It is there that researchers took rats with spinal cord injuries that compelled the rats to drag the tail end of their bodies around, and implanted devices in the shape of a hollow spaghetti called bucatini. In untreated rats, fluid-filled cysts impede the repair spinal damage. The idea is that by installing the bucatini-like implants, you would create a conduit that helps encourage new axons to form. “These tubes provide the reference points for the cells, and tissue starts to build up,” Angelo Vescovi of the University of Milan-Bicocca told New Scientist.

The tiny hollow devices Vescovi and a colleague built are just a few millimeters long and made from biodegradable plastics coated with “chemical hooks” that help anchor cells. They filled the little tubes with natural growth factors, then implanted bundles of the tubes into the cysts at the site of the rats’ spinal cord injury. Six months later, new nerve fibers and blood vessels had grown through and between the tubes. Where the cysts were, there was now a “pseudo-tissue” resembling normal spinal cord tissue. Best of all, the rats regained some of their ability to use their hind legs. The researchers published their findings in the most recent issue of ACS Nano.

The “bucatini project” continues. This paper describes the work as a “promising starting point,” adding a prediction that “increasingly complex and refined approaches…will eventually lead to the development of effective experimental therapies in humans.”

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We’ve reached out to Vescovi to learn how soon we might see similar therapies tried out in humans, and whether rigatoni or fusilli might play a role. We’ll let you know what we find out.

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[Image: Flickr user Arnold Gatilao]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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