UOW partners with University of British Columbia to treat spinal cord injury

The multidisciplinary team will develop a biomaterial bridge to help regrow nerve fibres in the spine

UOW partners with the University of British Columbia to treat spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord resulting from trauma (e.g. a car crash or a fall), disease or degeneration (e.g. cancer). The World Health Organisation estimates that globally, around half a million people suffer such an injury every year. Overall, spinal cord injuries cost Australians at least $2 billion a year.

A key challenge in treating traumatic SCI is repairing the gap which forms when the spine is broken. This gap, typically a few centimetres wide, essentially blocks nerve impulses from getting through, leading to serious health issues such as paralysis, loss of blood pressure, bladder and bowel control, sexual dysfunction, and chronic pain.

A new global and multidisciplinary team – comprising scientists from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia – has been formed at the Canadian University of British Columbia (UBC) to work on novel solutions to treating spinal cord injury. The project, named Mend the Gap, has received $24 million from Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund 2020 Transformation stream to investigate using biomaterials- soft gels in particular-to heal SCI.

And that’s where Australian expertise comes into play.

Professor Gordon Wallace, the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at the University of Wollongong, leads the Australian team of researchers who will develop critical components of biomaterial bridge to help regrow nerve fibres in the spine.

“We are excited and privileged to be part of this global and multidisciplinary initiative spearheaded by our colleagues at UBC in Canada. Mend the Gap is where science, engineering, medicine and ethics meet,” Professor Wallace said.

Repairing the spinal cord is difficult because of scar tissue, so the soft gel formulated by the global team will contain drugs modifying that tissue and reviving the nerve fibres. A machine-vision-equipped surgical robot will inject the gel into the spinal cord for enhanced precision.

“Our team in Wollongong will bring expertise and skills in sourcing biomaterials, scaling materials processing, formulations, sterilisation and packaging. We’ll also offer innovative approaches in localised drug delivery.

“Delivering appropriate drugs in the right place at the right time during the regeneration process is critical to the success of this therapy,” Professor Wallace added.

Dr John Madden, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UBC and a Principal Investigator in the Mend the Gap project, explained that a biomaterials bridge would be compatible with other systems and structures in the body, and therefore, minimally disruptive to the spine.

“The soft gel that our team plans to use contains tiny magnetic rods that are aligned using an external magnet, creating guide rails that support the nerve fibres to grow in the right direction, eventually crossing the gap,” Dr Madden said.

The expertise that UOW’s researchers have developed at the Translational Research Initiative for Cell Engineering and Printingis invaluable to the project, as it will allow for the synthesis, packaging and sterilisation of the soft gel materials in the optimal formulation.

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