Spinal cord injuries and disorders afflict millions worldwide, from disabled veterans to people with neurodegenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, yet there is currently no way to repair a damaged spine. Geneticists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle are hoping to change that by developing the first genetic encyclopedia of the spinal cord.

The Allen Spinal Cord Atlas, which will be available online for free in early 2009, will map out which genes are active in which locations along the spine in mice, which share 90 percent of their genetic material with humans.

Researchers are looking forward to using the new tool, based on the success of the Allen Institute’s 2006 Brain Atlas. That genetic map led to key insights, such as the link between glioblastoma, the deadliest type of brain tumor, and a gene called BEX1. Gregory Foltz of Swedish Medical Center in Seattle saw that BEX1 was turned off in the brains of his tumor patients, and using the Brain Atlas, he confirmed that the gene is usually active in healthy brains, as reported in Cancer Research in 2006. Foltz realized that when BEX1 is inhibited, cells grow uncontrollably and can form tumors—and researchers hope to develop treatments that target the malfunctioning gene.

Experts predict the Spinal Cord Atlas will allow for similar insights into the genes that may be useful for treating spinal cord injuries and disorders.