Revolutionary new biotechnology research being developed and funded in New Zealand could make paralysis as a result of Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) a thing of the past.
Associate Professor Darren Svirskis of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland is the recipient of nearly half a million dollars in funding from The CatWalk Trust and the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).
The funding will be used to develop a high-tech bio-electronic implant, which he hopes will assist the body to heal and reconnect injured sections of the spinal cord, using mild electrical fields and growth factors to stimulate the damaged spinal cord to regenerate.
“I’ve always been interested in how cells communicate with each other, and what occurs when normal healthy communication is lost, such as when someone has a traumatic injury leading to spinal cord damage,” says Svirskis, in the School of Pharmacy.
“Our body uses electrical signals and growth factors to grow and develop from the moment we are conceived. I want to find out if we can use those same signals to stimulate nerves, to create new links in the spinal cord where the chain has been broken.”
A pharmacist, Svirskis had been researching methods to record from and stimulate nerve cells for neurodevelopmental disorders, when he crossed paths with Dr Simon O’Carroll. O’Carroll is Head of the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility, funded by The CatWalk Trust, and a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research.
“With Simon’s expertise, I realised we had the potential to work together to create and use materials that could help information flow up and down the spinal cord,” says Svirskis.
The research involves working with living cells, trying to create models of a human spinal cord. “We stretch the cells quickly, to replicate what would happen in the case of a sudden impact or car crash. From here, we will test the effects of electrical fields and growth factors to find out how we can help the damaged cells regrow in the right direction.”
The complex research is being undertaken by a specialist team, including chemist and bioengineer Dr Brad Raos, and experimental psychologist and brain implant specialist Dr Bruce Harland, both also in the University of Auckland’s School of Pharmacy. A bioelectronic implant has been made by research partners at the University of Freiberg in Germany, capable of delivering beneficial electrical fields and growth factors to living organisms. New Zealand team member and research fellow Dr Zaid Aqrawe has spent nine months in Freiburg leading the design of the minute device, which is the thickness of cling film.
The implant is flexible, but not breakable, and is designed to lay on the top surface of the spinal cord. Micro-electrodes allow the team to record the activity in the spinal cord, the aim being to eventually use those same electrodes to stimulate nerves to regrow and reconnect.
“The funding will be used to explore beneficial electrical field and growth factor treatments; once we know what works with cells in the petri dish, we will move onto using the bioelectronic implants to help stimulate nerve growth in living organisms,” explains Svirskis. “We want to see nerves regrow, and to develop functional connections, the idea of the implant is to enhance the body’s own ability to heal itself.”
CatWalk Trust founder and former top equestrian competitor Catriona Williams, MNZM, says the implant will be a game-changer. “This implant offers a real and ground-breaking chance for those with SCI-caused paralysis to get up out of the chair they’ve been told they may never leave.
“That kind of transformation is incredible – and thanks to this research, it could be possible in the near future,” says Williams, who became a tetraplegic after breaking her neck in a riding accident in 2002.
“The CatWalk Trust was set up to support researchers in finding a cure for spinal cord injuries, so this is an incredibly exciting development.”
Svirskis’ research is part of a significant number of advancements that has invigorated research into spinal cord injuries, but funding is crucial. Emeritus professor Louise Nicholson, a member of the board at The CatWalk Trust and former neurologist, is a passionate advocate for getting people out of wheelchairs and back on their feet.
“The idea of connecting and healing damaged sections of a human spinal cord is beyond exciting,” she says. “At The CatWalk Trust, we are looking for something the world has never seen: a cure for spinal cord injury. To do that, we need to support researchers like Darren and his team. Without funding, it simply can’t happen.”