Jennifer Morgan and Ona Bloom with juvenile lamprey in the MBL Whitman Center. Credit: Amanda R. Martinez

A fish with the ability to recover from spinal cord injuries may lead to breakthrough research regarding how humans can recovery from similar injuries.

Researchers from several entities, including Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), have found that several genes that repair injured spinal cords in a lamprey fish are also active in the repair of the peripheral nervous system in mammals, which could lead to new therapeutic developments for humans.

“We found a large overlap with the hub of transcription factors that are driving regeneration in the mammalian peripheral nervous system,” Jennifer Morgan, the director of the MBL's Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering, said in a statement.

Lampreys—which shared a common ancestor with humans about 550 million years ago—are jawless fish, that are similar to eels.

The fish can fully recover from a severed spinal cord without medication or other treatment and can go from paralysis to full swimming behaviors in 10 to 12 weeks.

“Scientists have known for many years that the lamprey achieves spontaneous recovery from spinal cord injury, but we have not known the molecular recipe that accompanies and supports this remarkable capacity,” Ona Bloom, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Feinstein Institute and associate professor and director of research at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, said in a statement. "In this study, we have determined all the genes that change during the time course of recovery and now that we have that information, we can use it to test if specific pathways are actually essential to the process.”

During the study, the researchers conducted RNA sequencing on the lamprey’s spinal cord and brain to determine which genes and signaling pathways were activated as compared to a non-injured lamprey. They discovered the expression of several genes in the spinal cord changed over time with recovery, coinciding with a number of genes that also change in the brain.

“This reinforces the idea that the brain changes a lot after a spinal cord injury,” Morgan said. “Most people are thinking, 'What can you do to treat the spinal cord itself?' but our data really support the idea that there's also a lot going on in the brain.”

The team also found that many of the genes associated with the response to spinal cord injuries are part of the Wnt signaling pathway, which also plays a role in tissue development and in regeneration in several other animals, including salamanders and zebrafish.

“Furthermore, when we treated the animals with a drug that inhibits the Wnt signaling pathway, the animals never recovered their ability to swim,” Morgan said.

The researchers now plan to explore why the Wnt pathway is important in the healing process.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.