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UBC spinal cord research breakthrough team buoyed by $24 million grant

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Major research grant for promising new steps on the path to nerve regeneration after spinal cord injury

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What is engineered in a petri dish doesn’t always work in the human body, but a group of scientists led by Dr John Madden of the University of British Columbia may be about to change that with an extraordinary breakthrough in spinal cord repair.

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Spinal cord injuries from a violent impact can break the spinal cord, a gap that makes it impossible for nerve impulses to travel from the body to the brain. The result can be paralysis or health problems such as loss of mobility, loss of temperature control, breathing difficulties, and chronic pain.

Madden, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia, along with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from around the world are taking a new approach to spinal cord regeneration.

Their project Mend the Gap recently received $24 million from the New Frontiers in Research Fund in Canada to continue their work on using soft gels that contain tiny magnetic strands, or rods, to guide reconnection and regrowth between the brain and the body.

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What has been demonstrated in the Petri dish is that the bridge can be built using tiny magnetic rods, aligned with an external magnet, to create “guide rods, a path for breadcrumbs,” and the team hopes to make that work in the human body, Madden said.

“Coming in to the engineering is that we need to get this material into the spinal cord without causing further damage to the spinal cord, using image-guided robots,” Madden said.

“The spinal cord is like a cable compressed from millions of tiny wires. Each wire has its own insulation and you have to repair and regrow the wires,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Wolfram Tetzlaff, University of British Columbia Professor of Surgery and Zoology and Director of ICORD, a center for spinal cord injury research in Vancouver. from the pest. .

University of British Columbia graduate research assistant Kathryn Jeffress and Dr. Wolfram Tetzlaff analyze the alignment of gels after injections into the spinal cords — the gels contain tiny, glowing green rods and respond to a magnetic field.
University of British Columbia graduate research assistant Kathryn Jeffress and Dr. Wolfram Tetzlaff analyze the alignment of gels after injections into the spinal cords — the gels contain tiny, glowing green rods and respond to a magnetic field. Photograph by Martin Dee/University of British Columbia /beng

Research dating back decades has shown that neurons can regenerate and form connections after injury, but challenges include what Titzlav calls a “hostile environment” caused by scarring and a “gap” caused by injury.

The gel would be soft and malleable, able to “gap repair” in injuries of various sizes and shapes, and would provide a minimally invasive method for implanting “smart biomaterials”, such as micro-magnetic sutures, capable of directing regeneration.

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The gel can also deliver medications to the area that can reduce scar tissue that hampers healing and limit function.

“This will facilitate regeneration of the spinal cord, in a somewhat hostile environment, in a non-invasive manner,” Tzlaff said.

“We are very excited and grateful for this $24 million research funding,” Titzlaff said.

Tetzlaff said the team expects the technology to take about seven years to develop before human trials can begin.

Tetslav said the goal initially was to increase independence. “This could be about improving hand function, about being able to button your shirt, or being able to feed yourself, or do self-care and reduce dependence on care aides,” Titzlaff said.

This undertaking brings together a diverse group of researchers and scientists from five different countries including experts in neuroscience, ethics, robotic surgery, materials chemistry, imaging and rehabilitation.

dryan@postmedia.com



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