You have probably seen those cute pictures of the blue mice by now. I first saw it on Neatorama, which linked to an article at Wired. Both said in their headlines that a Food Dye was responsible for reducing the damage from spinal cord injuries. To be fair, both sites mentioned in the articles themselves that the actual molecule used was similar to the food dye FD&C blue No. 1, but it was not in fact the dye used in blue M&M's.
The compound used in the Spinal Injury study was Coomassie Brilliant Blue G, which is commonly used as a protein stain for gel electrophoresis and in the Bradford protein assay. As you can see, they are not quite the same - Coomassie has a couple of extra methyl groups, and the substituent on the "top" benzene in this image is different.
The interesting thing to me is how it "works." According to the research article published in PNAS, the initial injury to the spinal cord is followed by a secondary injury. Over time, the area of damaged tissue expands from the original site of injury and the researchers reasoned that this expansion should be preventable.
The P2X7 receptor is a membrane channel that opens in response to increased ATP. In the injuries studied, the traumatized tissue releases a lot of ATP which in turn activates the P2X7 channels causing them to open. This has been linked to the spread of the injury, so anything that prevented the opening of the P2X7 channel could be expected to reduce or eliminate the secondary injury.
The Coomassie Blue acts as an antagonist for the P2X7 receptor. It binds to the receptor but does not activate the receptor - so the channel remains closed. Presumably Coomassie Blue and ATP both bind to the same site on P2X7 and only one can occupy the binding site at a time. Because the receptor is bound to the Coomassie Blue, ATP is unable to bind and activate the receptor. Since the opening of the channel is what leads to the expansion of the injury, keeping it closed will limit this expansion.
This is an exciting discovery, but it is likely to be only the first step. In the study, they treated the spinal cord injuries after 15 minutes. People who suffer spinal cord injuries might be helped by treatment with Coomassie Blue, but it is unlikely that they would receive treatment within 15 minutes.
Peng, W., Cotrina, M., Han, X., Yu, H., Bekar, L., Blum, L., Takano, T., Tian, G., Goldman, S., & Nedergaard, M. (2009). From the Cover: Systemic administration of an antagonist of the ATP-sensitive receptor P2X7 improves recovery after spinal cord injury Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (30), 12489-12493 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0902531106