Researchers from the University of Rochester found that non-toxic blue food dye (known as BBG) stops the cascade of molecular events that causes secondary damage to the spinal cord in the hours following an injury -- and the interruption could prevent paralysis.
Researchers studied rats, but hope this breakthrough could lead to treatments in humans. And because blue food dye is already known to be safe when ingested, the researchers see this as a promising development.
CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton explained on "The Early Show" Tuesday how this dye may work to prevent paralysis.
Ashton explained the treatment can help reduce secondary injuries around an initial spinal cord injury, causing "less waste and less zone of injury" at the site.
And that may prove important, Ashton said, because, after a spinal cord injury, it's the swelling that really causes problems.
Ashton explained that, when a spinal cord injury occurs, a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, also known as ATP, is released in high amounts. The ATP molecules then bind to receptors that trigger irreversible cell death, which then leads to swelling.
"You can think of these molecules like a key fitting into a lock," she said. "The blue molecule, what they found to be contained in this dye, blocks that receptor cascade, so you don't get the cell death and you don't get the swelling."
However, Ashton pointed out, the research on rats did have one temporary side effect: The animals had a slight blue tint to their white fur and paws. Still, rats who received the treatment, the researchers reported, were able to recover much of their limb function, to the point of being able to walk again, though with a limp.
Dispensing the dye intravenously, as was done in the rats, may be good news for people who have sustained spinal cord injuries. Previously, Ashton said, the researchers had to inject the dye right into the spinal cord, which is obviously something you don't want to do with a spinal cord injury.
Despite the time constraint of the blue dye treatment -- it must be administered within hours of the injury -- Ashton said blue dye does "hold a lot of promise" for people who suffer those types of injuries.
She added, "It's not just the one injury that matters. It's the secondary injury that really gets people."
There are approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injuries each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says currently, steroids and rehabilitation therapies are the only options to help spinal cord injuries. Steroids, according to NIH, appear to reduce the damage to nerve cells if given within the first eight hours after injury.