Scientists know that brains ravaged by strokes and other injuries try to rewire themselves and make new connections to circumvent the damaged area.
Creighton University's pharmacology chairman hopes that he and others have found a natural compound produced by a specific ocean algae that might improve the brain's ability to reorganize its circuitry.
Creighton's Tom Murray, who is working on the project with scientists from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of California, San Diego, said there currently are no drugs that promote neuron, or nerve cell, repair.
“They're desperately needed,” Murray said.
Murray's report on their findings was published this month in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article will be published this week in the print edition.
Murray said the compound obtained from a single-cell marine organism has shown the ability in mouse neurons to trigger activity, growth and repair. The research so far has involved mouse neurons in culture dishes.
The next step is to place the compound in live mice to determine its effectiveness, Murray said. Ideally, he said, the drug could be tested in humans in five years.
The brain naturally tries to rewire cells after an injury, but it has limited ability to do so, Murray said. The compound, which comes from the Florida red tide organism, or Karenia brevis, appears to accelerate that process.
One of Murray's partners on the project, UNC Wilmington's Dan Baden, said it's exciting to find a potential clinical use for the Florida red tide organism. The organism, which periodically blooms orange or red in the ocean, releases a toxin that can kill marine life and sicken humans. It's that toxin that holds the potential to stimulate neurons in the brain.
Baden, director of the Center for Marine Science at UNC Wilmington, said he, Murray and San Diego's William Gerwick have been working on the project for 10 years.
They are still several years or more from human trials, though. That assumes, too, that the scientists show sufficient understanding of the compound, that it demonstrates effectiveness and that it is safe up to that point.
“We all realize that these are 10-, 15-, 20-year quests,” he said.
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