laboratory rat, blue dye, rats
Takahiro Takano
Laboratory rat treated with blue dye infusion.

Blue Food Dye Helps Treat Spinal Cord Injuries in Rats

July 28, 2009 04:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
A new study found that injecting blue dye into rats with spinal cord injuries reduced the damage. But getting funding to research the treatment in humans may be difficult.

Blue Dye in the Emergency Room?

According to new research, the food additive known as Brilliant Blue G (BBG)—a nontoxic food additive—could help “reduce damage caused by spine injuries, offering a better chance of recovery,” CNN reports.

Researchers found that the blue dye “is remarkably similar to a lab compound that blocks a key step in nerve inflammation,” Hadley Legget wrote for Wired magazine. When lab rats with spinal cord injuries were administered the blue dye, they recovered faster than those not exposed to the treatment, regaining most of their original mobility.

So far, the only adverse side effect of the treatment is that the rats “temporarily turned blue,” according to CNN. The additive, however, is harmless. “Each of us in United States eats about 14 milligrams of blue dye per day,” Maiken Nedergaard, coauthor of the study, told Wired. “It’s in anything blue, in M&Ms, in Gatorade, in Jell-O. We eat 100 million pounds a year in the U.S., so we already know that there’s no toxicity.”

In 2004, Nedergaard and his team discovered that the molecule ATP is responsible for inflammation around the spinal cord, and that blocking an ATP receptor prevented the subsequent cascade of molecular events leading to injury and paralysis. Until the discovery of the dye, researchers had failed to find a clinical drug capable of attaining this effect.

Nedergaard is quick to explain that this treatment does not provide a cure for spine injuries, but rather an aid for a better recovery. “I don’t think that anything can cure this, but for the patient it could be a big improvement,” Nedergaard told Science News.

Reactions: Funding issues may delay clinical trials

According to Nedergaard, several years of research would be necessary for this treatment to be used in humans. Since the damage to nerve cells is an irreversible process, the treatment would have to be applied immediately after an injury in order to decrease damage.

“Our hope is that this work will lead to a practical, safe agent that can be given to patients shortly after injury, for the purpose of decreasing the secondary damage that we have to otherwise expect,” Steven Goldman, Chair of the University of Rochester Department of Neurology and Nedergaard’s collaborator, told CNN.

Though more research is necessary, it may be very difficult to find a drug company willing to sponsor the trials. “There’s no commercial interest because you can buy it by the pound,” Nedergaard told Wired. “We’re planning a clinical trial here in Rochester, but we’ll have to wait for funding from the government.”

Related Topic: The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis

In 1985, NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti and Barth A. Green, MD, founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis after Nick’s son, Marc, sustained a spine injury during a college football game. The Miami Project is now an eminent spinal cord injury research center that aims to turn new successful laboratory discoveries into clinical trials to test their appropriateness for human use.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines