Dr. James Fawcett
Re-wiring the spinal cord:
Dr. James Fawcett explores protein mechanisms of brain repair and cancer development. Restoring lost motor function after spinal cord injury and the development of cancer may not seem to have a lot in common. Yet these vastly different aims are linked by common threads – protein-based cell-signalling events – which Dr. James Fawcett is determined to unravel.
A Tier II Canada Research Chair in Brain Repair, Dr. Fawcett joined Dalhousie Medical School’s spinal cord research group in 2006. He is working with Dr. Vic Rafuse and Dr. Rob Brownstone to learn how the spinal cord is wired – and find ways to regenerate and re-wire neurons required for movement and walking after they’ve been injured by trauma or disease.
A process known as ‘axon guidance’ is one of the keys. “In the developing nervous system, each neuron sends out an axon, a long tendril that grows out from the neuron,” Dr. Fawcett explains. “The axon senses the outside world and homes in on protein signals that guide it to the location that will make the right brain-body connection.” Controlling axon guidance is crucial to restoring lost function after spinal cord injury.
Dr. Fawcett has discovered a signalling molecule that plays a critical role in developing the spinal circuits needed for walking. He has also identified signalling proteins involved in deciding a cell’s fate – including the decision of normal cells to develop into cancerous cells. “We study simple protein-protein interactions to understand what compels axons to migrate and certain cells to become cancerous,” he says. “Because there are proteins involved, we have something to work with – to enhance spinal cord repair and interfere with cancer development.”
An Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and the Division of Neurosurgery, Dr. Fawcett received equipment support and a New Investigator Award from Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation in 2007. The Brain Repair Centre and Dalhousie Medical School’s collegial environment were among the features that attracted him to Halifax. “I could tell that something big is happening here,” he says.