The Scottish Rugby Union is helping fund pioneering research into repairing spinal cord injuries at the University of Aberdeen.
Aberdeen scientists are believed to be the first in the world to use a combination of different methods – together with a bio- degradable ‘bridge’ made of silk fibre – to tackle this kind of injury which can be caused by falls, road accidents, medical conditions and injuries from a wide range of sports, including rugby. Dr James Robson, chief medical officer at the SRU, said: “We are delighted to support this groundbreaking research at the University of Aber- deen.
“It’s important to note that the benefits of taking part in rugby, just like any sport, far outweigh any possible risks. However, at Scottish Rugby, we believe it is important we create as safe a game as possible.
“We have undertaken a number of measures, especially within youth rugby, to enhance player welfare and we will continue to look at any areas where we can improve the wellbeing of our participants.
“Severe injury to the spinal cord remains, thankfully, a rare occurrence. If we can help scientists in their drive to regenerate damaged nerves then it will represent a considerable breakthrough.”
The technique would involve placing a silk ‘bridge’ over the spinal injury wound and this would act as a scaffold for nerves to grow through. Electrical and chemical stimulation would also be applied to the area in a bid to encourage nerve growth and reconnections.
If successful, this combined nerve repair technique could be used to help other conditions, such as stroke and brain injury.
Dr Wenlong Huang, who moved from Imperial College in London to join Aberdeen University’s Nerve Repair Group – formed thanks to the support of the SRU and funding from other donors – said: “Serious spinal cord injuries can result in movement and sensory loss below the point of injury.
“After the initial injury the nerves break or die and the communication signals carried by the spinal cord are lost.
“Myelin, the material that protects the nerve fibres, then breaks down and the immune system reacts and starts trying to fix the area. This leads to the formation of a fluid-filled cyst, surrounded by scar tissue, which physically prevents nerve regrowth.
“The original trauma is compounded by cells around the injury which produce ‘stop growth’ chemical signals which prevent the nerves from re-growing across the injury.
“This creates a hostile environment that is a barrier to nerve regrowth, and this is one of the reasons why patients with a serious spinal injury can end up with total paralysis.”