22 August 2014
Christopher Reeve, the actor who still incarnates Superman for a whole generation, died in 2004 of complications ten years after crushing vertebrae in his neck while horse-riding. The accident snapped nerves in his spinal cord linking the brain to muscles in his chest and limbs, leaving him paralysed below the shoulders and unable to breathe unassisted. Befitting Superman, Reeve fought relentlessly for more research into stem cells' promise to re-grow nerves. Ten years on, biologists report increasingly successful experiments where stem cells grafted into damaged spines sprout extensive networks of nerve fibres. In this rat spine cross-section, human iPSC stem cells from an 86-year-old patient showcase the power of regenerative medicine as the cells unfurl long new fibres (blue speckles) along the length of the spine – though stopping short of bridging the wound to restore motor function – but crucially, connecting to existing nerves. Superman, are you watching from planet Krypton?
Written by Tristan Farrow