Spinal Research has recently committed to funding three new research projects which have the potential to be taken to clinical trials with paralyzed volunteers.
Improving hand function
The research team at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, led by Professor James Guest, has recently been permitted to conduct a first ‘in human’ study to evaluate the safety of transplanting human Schwann cells to treat those with recent spinal cord injuries. The study, part-funded by Spinal Research, has already established conclusively that autologous (where the donor and recipient is the same person) transplanted Schwann cells survive for six months after implantation into a chronic lesion site, i.e. where the damage is located, and form myelin around the axons (nerve fibres) of the damaged corticospinal tract. Myelin is important as it protects the axon but also helps to speed up the transfer of information (nerve signals along the spinal cord), which are disrupted or cut off after injury.
The new study builds on this work to incorporate the use of genetically manipulated Schwann cells that enhance regeneration of axons necessary to control hand functions. The researchers will attempt to create new cellular pathways using these modified cells to guide the damaged axons from the site of injury to a target where new neural connections may form. This could lead to improvements in hand function and with it improved independence and quality of life for those living with paralysis.
Testing chondroitinase in dogs
During the last decade, the bacterial enzyme chondroitinase has emerged as a promising intervention to treat spinal cord injury; numerous studies have demonstrated its effect on reduced scarring, preserved nerve function in the injury zone and better recovery of normal movements. However, the therapy needs further pre-clinical data gathered in models with greater clinical relevance. This new project, led by Dr Nicholas Jeffrey and Dr Ravi Bellamkonda at Iowa State University, will test the treatment in pet dogs who have sustained severe and chronic accidental spinal cord injury.
If the project demonstrates efficacy, it would provide a green light for human clinical trials, thus accelerating the translation of the intervention from laboratory to clinic.
Overcoming glial scarring
Leading UK experts have joined forces on this project to address the failure of regenerating nerves to overcome the glial scar at the site of a spinal cord injury, which is a major obstacle to repair after spinal cord injury. Dr Elizabeth Bradbury (King’s College London), a world authority on chondroitinase, and Professor Arthur Butt (University of Portsmouth), an expert in glial-neuronal cell biology, will be looking at a combination approach to overcome the scar.
The study, which will also provide post-graduate training for a young scientist, will not only use chondroitinase to break down the lattice-work of molecules that contribute to the scar, but combine this with recently discovered molecules that modify the response of cells that produce the scar tissue in the first place. They predict that this combined approach will promote targeted regeneration to a greater extent than a single treatment.