Asparagus: A New Treatment for Spinal Cord Injuries?

A delicate spear of asparagus might look like a delicious side dish, but Ottawa biophysicist Andrew Pelling saw something more. "I was cooking with it one day and noticed how it looked like a spinal cord," said Pelling. "It's full of all these little capillaries along which water gets transported.” The idea was born to use a section of an asparagus stalk, to insert into damaged regions of the spinal cord, to guide neurons back together and reconnect. The first step was to take asparagus and strip the stalks of DNA and plant proteins using detergents, and what was left was the fibrous tissue of the plant. The next step was to test the asparagus implants on rats with a severe spinal cord injury to see if new neural pathways would form. The rats went from paralyzed from the waist down to being able to get their legs moving again within 12 weeks. They weren’t walking perfectly by any means, but there was a clear enhancement of motor control with the implant. Just last week, researchers were able to announce that this particular technology has been designated a "breakthrough device" by the FDA. It's not clear who might get to try out the technology — or when — but the FDA nod means a very accelerated timeline to get to clinical trials. Ultimately, the hope is that some day asparagus will help people who have suffered some sort of paralysis from the waist down within a very short timeframe.