And that's just what Stupp and his colleagues found when they dissected the damaged spinal column in some of the mice.
"We see regenerated axons across the lesion," he said. "That's the exciting part. Regeneration of axons across the lesion is very significant."
What it means is that the spinal column is, indeed, healing itself, and without the aid of drugs.
But what happens to those nanostructures after they've done their work? One of the concerns in the field of nanotechnology is that scientists might create tiny machines that could be used for great mischief. They might make manufacturing so cheap, for example, that any country could afford to become a military superpower. There is no chance of anything evil coming out of this, Stupp said.
"These nanostructures are completely biodegradable," Stupp said. "They disappear within weeks."
So they do their work and go away.
Stupp is now expanding his research into Parkinson's disease.
"It's just the very beginning, so this is extremely early," he said. "We are introducing these nanostructures in the brain of mice that have Parkinson's disease. We have seen very interesting functional recovery."
In the end, it might turn out that Stupp's work is only part of the solution. Like his associates at the University of Michigan, he might find that his nanostructures make great drug delivery systems. Certain solutions may require the introduction of stem cells, he said, so that controversy isn't likely to go away. But maybe a marriage between nanotechnology and traditional medical procedures might be just the ticket.
"What might really work is the integration of the two," he said.
Stupp's results are encouraging, although very preliminary. But he is so convinced that he's on the right track that he recently unveiled his mice, and their partial recovery, during a meeting in Washington of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The project is a public interest program sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The mice are not pretty to watch. They still struggle to walk, sometimes dragging one foot. So it's a partial victory at this point. But it's a significant milestone in a field that is in its infancy.