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Spinal Cord Injury Research and Bioengineering

 

Armin Blesch, Associate Professor

Paul Lu, Assistant Research Scientist

Karin Löw, Assistant Project Scientist

Ephron Rosenzweig, Assistant Project Scientist

John Brock, Postdoctoral Fellow

Ken Kadoya, Postdoctoral Fellow

Tom Gros, Graduate Student

 

The work of the Spinal Cord Injury Group at the Center for Neural Repair focuses on augmenting regeneration of the adult spinal cord after injury.  The injured spinal cord does not regenerate because: 1) “bridges” that can support axonal regeneration do not naturally form in an SCI lesion site; 2) growth factors are not produced in the injured spinal cord to stimulate regeneration;  3) injured CNS neurons do not fully express a “growth program” to recruit new regeneration; and 4) the environment of the injured adult spinal cord inhibits regeneration due to the presence of inhibitory extracellular matrix molecules that form around the injury site, and due to the presence of inhibitory proteins on adult myelin that block regeneration.

Our initial strategies for enhancing regeneration after SCI focused on delivery of growth factors to lesion sites. We have now broadened our perspective considerably by adopting combinatorial approaches to promoting regeneration. Most recently, combinatorial treatments applied to sites of SCI have resulted in successful bridging of axons into and beyond the lesion, and formation of connection (synapses) with neuronal targets beyond the lesion. This regeneration can be achieved even when treatments are applied after substantial delays from the original injury, including one year after injury in rodent models.

Our current research efforts range from early stage gene discovery to late stage proof-of-concept testing of the most promising combination therapies in primates. Our experimental techniques include gene array studies, neuronal cell biology, in vitro assays of neurite outgrowth, and in vivo rodent and primate models that include anatomical, electrophysiological, and behavioral assessments.

Within the spinal cord injury group, we are exploring the ability of new developments in Bioengineering and nanotechnology to enhance and guide regenerating axons in the injured spinal cord and peripheral nerve. We collaborate with scientists at NASA to construct templated scaffolds that provide a structured and permissive environment for injured axon growth. Incorporation of neurotrophic factors within scaffolds may provide a transient but sustained method for delivering growth-promoting proteins to areas of degeneration or injury.  Development of bioengineering applications is an ongoing process that augments current research interests and provides new avenues of exploration in nervous system injury models.