Spinal Cord Research Group
Hope for spinal cord injury:
Dalhousie Medical School spinal cord researchers are closer than ever to the so-far elusive goal of restoring function after spinal cord injury. Six lead investigators are approaching the challenge from many angles, with impressive results. “We have proven that stem cells can be engineered into motor neurons and, when transplanted, connect to muscles,” says Dr. Victor Rafuse, explaining that motor neurons are the specialized nerve cells in the spinal cord that allow us to move. “Now we are fine-tuning these neurons’ ability to connect brain signals to the right muscles, so a person could properly control movement.”
In addition to Dr. Rafuse, the spinal cord research group includes four other basic science researchers, two neurosurgeons and about 25 trainees.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Rob Brownstone works on the stem-cell-to-motor-neuron projects, and other studies investigating how the spinal cord controls walking, with support from such agencies as the Christopher Reeve Foundation and Project A.L.S. Dr. James Fawcett is investigating very early neuronal development to learn how spinal circuits are assembled during development. At the same time, Dr. John Downie is investigating how and why spinal cord injury disrupts bladder function – a major cause of distress and health complications for spinal cord patients. Dr. Dan Marsh is looking at the spinal cord’s response to injury and testing ways to minimize the destruction of nervous tissue that continues for weeks after the initial injury. He also investigates how episodes of high blood pressure after spinal cord injury can be minimized to prevent stroke.
Meanwhile, neurosurgeon Dr. Sean Christie is working towards clinical trials to examine the potential of surgical therapies – including cellular transplantation – to encourage survival and re-growth of axons and spinal neurons following acute injury.
Members of the spinal cord group have received crucial equipment grants, seed funding and other financial support from Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation.