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Gregory W. J. Hawryluk, James Rowland, Brian K. Kwon and Michael G. Fehlings

Over the past 2 decades, advances in understanding the pathophysiology of spinal cord injury (SCI) have stimulated the recent emergence of several therapeutic strategies that are being examined in Phase I/II clinical trials. Ten randomized controlled trials examining methylprednisolone sodium succinate, tirilizad mesylate, monosialotetrahexosylganglioside, thyrotropin releasing hormone, gacyclidine, naloxone, and nimodipine have been completed. Although the primary outcomes in these trials were laregely negative, a secondary analysis of the North American Spinal Cord Injury Study II demonstrated that when administered within 8 hours of injury, methylprednisolone sodium succinate was associated with modest clinical benefits, which need to be weighed against potential complications. Thyrotropin releasing hormone (Phase II trial) and monosialotetrahexosylganglioside (Phase II and III trials) also showed some promise, but we are unaware of plans for future trials with these agents. These studies have, however, yielded many insights into the conduct of clinical trials for SCI. Several current or planned clinical trials are exploring interventions such as early surgical decompression (Surgical Treatment of Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study) and electrical field stimulation, neuroprotective strategies such as riluzole and minocycline, the inactivation of myelin inhibition by blocking Nogo and Rho, and the transplantation of various cellular substrates into the injured cord. Unfortunately, some experimental and poorly characterized SCI therapies are being offered outside a formal investigational structure, which will yield findings of limited scientific value and risk harm to patients with SCI who are understandably desperate for any intervention that might improve their function. Taken together, recent advances suggest that optimism for patients and clinicians alike is justified, as there is real hope that several safe and effective therapies for SCI may become available over the next decade.

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James W. Rowland, Gregory W. J. Hawryluk, Brian Kwon and Michael G. Fehlings

This review summarizes the current understanding of spinal cord injury pathophysiology and discusses important emerging regenerative approaches that have been translated into clinical trials or have a strong potential to do so. The pathophysiology of spinal cord injury involves a primary mechanical injury that directly disrupts axons, blood vessels, and cell membranes. This primary mechanical injury is followed by a secondary injury phase involving vascular dysfunction, edema, ischemia, excitotoxicity, electrolyte shifts, free radical production, inflammation, and delayed apoptotic cell death. Following injury, the mammalian central nervous system fails to adequately regenerate due to intrinsic inhibitory factors expressed on central myelin and the extracellular matrix of the posttraumatic gliotic scar. Regenerative approaches to block inhibitory signals including Nogo and the Rho-Rho–associated kinase pathways have shown promise and are in early stages of clinical evaluation. Cell-based strategies including using neural stem cells to remyelinate spared axons are an attractive emerging approach.