Research

What We Do

The CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Research Trust raises funds to support the body of scientific opinion which says a cure for SCI will be found.

We work with the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCRIF) at the Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland. The major role of SCRIF is to establish expertise and maintain spinal injury models that can be accessed by researchers throughout New Zealand. The unit will help further develop, grow and maintain an ongoing research programme with existing international collaborations and foster new initiatives both in New Zealand and abroad. Administrative support and a research environment for student training will be provided by the Centre for Brain Research’s Integrative Neuroscience Facility. The unit will play a key role in educating bright, young students in spinal injury research and clinical awareness and practice.

Principal Researchers at the SCIRF

Professor Louise Nicholson is the principal investigator of the Molecular Neuroanatomy Laboratory in the Centre for Brain Research. She is internationally recognized as an authority on molecular neuroanatomy of the human brain, and has expertise in both cellular neuroanatomy and the molecular measures of neuropathology in both animal models and in human neurodegenerative diseases. Her research group currently focuses on the role of gap junctions in central nervous system injury, repair and neurodegeneration. Professor Nicholson is currently the New Zealand representative on both the Australian Neuroscience Society Council, and the Australia New Zealand Spinal Cord Injury Research Network. She has been a Council member and Secretary of the International Basal Ganglia Society. Professor Nicholson is currently the Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Dr Simon O’Carroll is a research fellow in the Centre for Brain Research. He has expertise in the use of animal models for spinal cord injury and will lead the running of the unit. Dr O’Carroll’s research interests focus on the role of connexins in spinal cord injury, neuroinflammation, neurodegenerative disease and neurogenesis.

Professor Colin Green has published widely in the fields of gap junction biology and their roles in development, health and disease and has an established research interest in central nervous system and spinal cord injury. Professor Green has a strong focus on translational research and currently holds the W & B Hadden Chair of Ophthalmology and Translational Vision Research and was a founding scientist of CoDaTherapeutics (NZ) Ltd and CoDa Therapeutics, Inc (USA), established to apply the major breakthroughs he and collaborators have made in the role of gap junctions in tissue injury and repair.

Location

The SCIRF is located in the hub of the Centre for Brain Research – a purpose built dedicated neuroscience research laboratory, situated in the Grafton Campus of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at The University of Auckland. This laboratory environment is a specialist neuroscience research area, with world-class studies underway investigating human brain disease, stem cells, gene therapy, and drug development. As well as the physical proximity to such ground-breaking studies, SCIRF also links to the wider neuroscience research underway in Auckland University, through the Integrative Neuroscience Facility in the Centre for Brain Research. This collaborative approach means that pre-clinical investigations carried out in the laboratory are underpinned by molecular, cellular and clinical work underway in the rest of the centre.

The Centre for Brain Research is directed by Professor Richard Faull. Richard has an international reputation for his research studies on the normal and diseased human brain and has been awarded New Zealand’s highest scientific award, the Rutherford Medal. He is the Patron of the Alzheimer’s Foundation (Auckland), Alzheimers New Zealand Charitable Trust and the Huntington’s Disease Association (Auckland and Northland), and the Medical Patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association of New Zealand.

Ethics

All research carried out in the SCIRF must first be approved by the University of Auckland Animal Ethics Committee. This stringent ethics committee ensures that all research carried out in the University adheres to international ethical and safety standards. A panel of experts from across the University assess each research project and guarantee only the highest quality will pass to meet its high standards.

The use of human tissue bequeathed to the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Human Brain Bank must follow strict ethical guidelines. All research projects must first be approved by the University of Auckland Human Ethics Committee. The team have also developed protocols for sensitive use of the tissue according to tikanga Māori.

Laboratory Safety

SCIRU will be located in a PC1 laboratory, and in a dedicated high containment facility within the VJU Research Unit which means that all practices adhere to rigorous health and safety standards. PC1 ensures that all biological material is handled safely and carefully, so that human health is protected. The high containment facility will allow the use stem cell and gene therapy technologies. All employees and students in the laboratory must undergo training in the safety standards before any research is commenced.

Collaborations

SCIRF is part of the Integrative Neuroscience Facility in the Centre for Brain Research, with the aim to produce research that is cutting-edge and maximises resources. Ideas, techniques and skills are shared within the unit, so that ground-breaking developments in the field of spinal cord injury will be able to influence those in stroke treatment, and vice versa. Our researchers also have numerous national and international collaborations, ensuring that SCIRF is at the forefront of global research. SCIRF welcomes new research collaborations and ideas, with the aim of maximising spinal cord research in New Zealand. Our ultimate hope is finding a cure for spinal cord injury.

International Scientific Research Advisor – Martin Codyre. BEng Hons, MSc Neuroscience, MIEI.

Martin was rendered a C5 quadriplegic (paralysed from the shoulders down) in August 2008.  As soon as he had stabilised he started looking into the scientific and medical worlds for interventions that would recover his lost function.

He has travelled almost 500,000km attending conferences and visiting scientific leaders in the field of CNS regeneration and maintains this hectic travel schedule. His commitment to the cause drove him to obtain a Masters in Neuroscience from Trinity College Dublin to allow him to deeply understand the biology behind possible treatments to restore function. His first degree is an Honours Degree in Mechanical Engineering from University College Dublin. At the time of his injury he was running his own start-up firm creating, and competing in, the nascent (now mainstream) mobile live-streaming and reality entertainment sector.

Prior to that he had worked for ten years in the algorithmic and high frequency trading space for Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch in NYC. Martin now leverages his significant medical neuroscience expertise and business and engineering backgrounds to assist SCI cure oriented organisations in understanding translational biology and in strategic allocation of resources towards promising and translatable science that will lead to treatments to restore neural control of lost function in the medium term.  Martin played an active role in the successful lobbying to reallocate the funding of $8 Million annually to the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board (SCIRB) in 2014. He is also on the the board of directors of the Irish Stem Cell Foundation which is affiliated with the International Society for Stem Cell Research and the New York Stem Cell Foundation. He is a member of the Advocate Research Committee of Unite 2 Fight Paralysis. Martin expects to be amongst the first to benefit from the treatments he is working towards.

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Startling Statistics

  • The majority of spinal cord injuries occur in young males between 25 – 45 years who are at the peak of their productivity.
  • 40% of spinal cord injuries in New Zealand are a result of motor vehicle accidents.
  • The average cost of care for each high level tetraplegic is NZ$212,000 per year.
  • New Zealand has one of the highest rates of SCI in the western world with the associated rehabilitation and hospital costs being among the highest for all injuries.

The Spine

Five segments of the vertebral column

The spinal column houses the spinal cord and is often referred to as the vertebral column. This vertebrae are classified in five segments as detailed below.

Cervical vertebrae

Seven vertebrae make up the cervical spine with eight pairs of cervical nerves. The individual cervical vertebrae are abbreviated C1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6 and C7.

Thoracic vertebrae

The Thoracic spine is located in the chest area and contains 12 vertebrae. The ribs connect to the thoracic spine and protect many vital organs. Individual vertebrae are abbreviated to T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6, T7, T8, T9, T10, T11 and T12.

Lumbar Vertebrae

These five bones are the largest vertebrae in the spinal column. These vertebrae support most of the body’s weight and are attached to many of the back muscles. Individual vertebrae are abbreviated to L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5.

Sacrum vertebrae

The sacrum is a triangular bone located just below the lumbar vertebrae. It consists of four or five sacral vertebrae in a child, which become fused into a single bone in adulthood.

Cocyx

The bottom of the spinal column is called the coccyx. This consists of 3-5 bones that are again fused in an adult.

The Spinal Cord

Spinal cord overview

The spinal cord is part of the nervous system and runs the length of the back, extending from the base of the brain at the medulla to about the waist at the conus medularis. The spinal cord is housed within the spinal column. Within the column, the cord is surrounded by cerebral spinal fluid. This fluid acts as a buffer to protect the spinal cord from damage sustained by striking the inside of the vertebral column.

Spinal cord illustration

The diagram below illustrates the main anatomical features of the spinal cord. The function of the main areas highlighted are listed below.

  • Spinal Nerve – Carries nerve impulses
  • Dorsal Root Ganglion – Receives impulses from other areas such as the skin for transmission to the brain.
  • Central Canal – Fluid filled space running the length of the spinal cord
  • Grey Matter – Contains nerve cell bodies.
  • White Matter – contains the axons of the spinal cord.

Spinal Cord Function

The spinal cord carries out two main functions, and is effectively a superhighway for communication of signals.

Firstly, it connects a large part of the nervous system to the brain. Nerve impulses are transmitted to the spinal cord through sensory neurons. These impulses are then transmitted by the spinal cord to the brain. This pathway is known as the ascending tract of nerves. In the reverse process, impulses are generated in the brain, which are transmitted down the cord and leave by the motor neurons. This pathway is known as the descending tract of nerves.

Secondly, the spinal cord acts as a co-ordinating centre in order to produce simple reflexes such as the withdrawal reflex.

The area within the spinal column beyond the end of the spinal cord is called the cauda equina. The nerves that branch out from the spinal cord to the other parts of the body are called lower motor neurons (LMNs) and dorsal root sensory neurons.

Spinal Cord Injury

The impact after spinal cord injury depends on the severity of the injury and the location of the spinal cord segments injured.

Completeness

There are two types of injury which are known as complete and incomplete.

In a complete injury, the spinal cord is damaged across the whole of its width so that there is no function below the level of injury.

In an incomplete injury, the injury does not spread across the whole of the spinal cord; some areas away from the injury remain intact or at least intact enough to retain some function. People with incomplete injuries have some sensation and/or movement control below the level of injury.

Spinal Levels

The higher the location of the injury in the spinal cord, the greater the proportion of the body affected. Thus, injuries higher up the spinal cord cause relatively greater paralysis and dysfunction than lower spinal injuries: injuries in the cervical region cause paralysis in both the arms and then legs (known as tetraplegia or quadriplegia) whereas injuries in the thoracic region cause paralysis in the legs, which is called paraplegia.

Grant Applications

The CatWalk Trust accept proposals aimed at advancing research towards a cure for spinal cord injury.

Applications for 2016 funding round is now closed. Please keep checking back for our next round of funding.

We accept research projects based on:

  • Biomedical or clinical research projects,
  • A Post Graduate Scholarship for a NZ Citizen or Permanent Resident, to study towards a PhD ($25,000 annual stipend plus fees),
  • A one or two year Post Doctoral Fellowship to be undertaken either in New Zealand or in an overseas centre of excellence (applicants should be a NZ Citizen or Permanent Resident)

Grants of up to $100,000 will be considered with the option of more funds being available for exceptional projects.

The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand undertakes the evaluation of all applications to the CatWalk Trust on the basis of their scientific merit and relevance to the aims of the Trust.

All applications are submitted to a peer review process via the Neurological Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The Neurological Foundation makes a recommendation to the CatWalk Trust on whether the application should, in their view be considered for funding.

The final decision on funding is made by the CatWalk Grants Approval Committee.

For the full grant details or for an Application Form contact us here.

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