The common food additive that gives M&Ms and Gatorade their blue tint may offer promise for preventing the serious additional damage that immediately follows a traumatic injury to the spinal cord. Maybe the lame really will get up and walk in the future!

ATP, the vital energy source that keeps our body’s cells alive, quickly pours into the area surrounding a spinal cord injury shortly after it occurs, and kills off what are otherwise healthy and uninjured cells. Now researchers have found that the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) stops the cascade of molecular events that cause secondary damage to the spinal cord in the hours following a spinal cord injury, leading to even more damage and paralysis for patients.

Rats with damaged spinal cords who received an injection of oxidized ATP were shown to recover much of their limb function, to the point of being able to walk again, although they were left with a limp. So researchers searched for a compound that not only would prevent ATP from doing its damage, but could be delivered intravenously. In a fluke, Researcher Maiken Nedergaard discovered that BBG, a known ATP antagonist, is both structurally and functionally equivalent to the commonly used FD&C blue dye No. 1. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive in 1982, more than 1 million pounds of this dye are consumed yearly in the US; each day, the average American ingests 16 mgs. of FD&C blue dye No. 1.

He says, “Because BBG is so similar to this commonly used blue food dye, we felt that if it had the same potency in stopping the secondary injury as oxidized ATP, but with none of its side effects, then it might be great potential treatment for cord injury. While we achieved great results when oxidized ATP was injected directly into the spinal cord, this method would not be practical for use with spinal cord-injured patients. First, no one wants to put a needle into a spinal cord that has just been severely injured, so we knew we needed to find another way to quickly deliver an agent that would stop ATP from killing healthy motor neurons. Second, the compound we initially used, oxidized ATP, cannot be injected into the bloodstream because of its dangerous side effects.” Rats who were injected with the food coloring had only a small, temporary side effect: a blue tinge to their skin.

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