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Surprise! Warrior immune proteins also help heal injured nerves

It now looks as though antibodies - immune-system-generated molecules famous for fighting infections - may also be critical for the repair of damaged nerves.

Many nerve tracts are surrounded by coatings of an insulating fatty substance, myelin, that both speeds and preserves the reliability of the electrical signals traveling down those tracts. When nerves are injured, their degenerating myelin coats hinder repair.

In a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford neurobiologist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, and his crew have shown in animal models that antibodies can flag degenerating myelin, hastening repair. Like cream cheese on a bagel, the antibodies seem to make the degenerating nerve-tract sheathes more appetizing to roving macrophages - the dump-trucks of the body - which come in and finish them off.

But this doesn't happen inside the brain or spinal cord, where, instead, injured nerves' degenerating myelin sheathes just sit and nerve repair doesn't happen. So the question arises: Might there be a way to deliver antibodies (not just any antibodies will do, but Barres has plenty of hunches) directly to the site of brain or spinal cord injury and jump-start the repair process there as well? Time will tell.

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