Generating human oligodendrocyte precursor cells from adult human dermal fibroblasts for the treatment of spinal cord injury.

Host institution The University of Auckland
Post‐Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Amy McCaughey‐Chapman
July 2020 NZ$92,558
June 2021 NZ$94,284
Funding term 24 months

Oligodendrocytes are cells in the central nervous system that produce a protective, insulating layer called myelin which allows electrical impulses to propagate quickly and efficiently between neurons. This study will investigate whether human oligodendrocyte precursor cells generated from human skin cells can be used for cell transplantation to promote remyelination following spinal cord injury.

Remyelination is the natural repair mechanism of demyelination, it is proposed that remyelination protects against progressive axonal injury and consequently also diminishes long-term disability. Endogenous remyelination takes place following spinal cord injury, but this is not sufficient for repair and hence transplantation of exogenous oligodendrocyte precursor cells to promote and enhance remyelination is an exciting prospect.

The use of gene therapy in combination with enriched cell transplantation in a chronic model of SCI.

Host institution The University of Auckland
Research location Centre for Brain Research
Lead investigators Dr Simon O’Carroll and Mr Connor Clemett
Funding amount NZ$114,777
Funding term 2019 – 2021, 36 months

Repair of the damaged cord with stem cell implants is an exciting therapeutic development but its potential is currently limited by the formation of scar tissue within the injury. The Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF) lab in Auckland has developed a method to express a “scar busting” enzyme within the injured cord which along with exercise rehabilitation leads to improved outcomes. The aim is to combine the gene therapy approach with the addition of stem cells to promote recovery.

PhD student, Connor Clemett, has started a project to combine this approach with cell therapy. Connor will inject cells into the injured cord that wrap around the nerve cells and improve the connection with other cells. This approach aims to make the new connections that occur stronger, leading to even better outcomes. In future we hope to use a new technology where we can grow these cells from an injured persons skin cells and, by using their own cells, increase the chance that such an approach will be successful.

The Health Research Council of NZ (HRC) and The CatWalk Trust strategic partnership

Recipient Associate Professor Darren Svirskis, The University of Auckland
Project A bioelectronic implant to reconnect damaged nerves following spinal cord injury
Project timeframe 36 months, total funding NZ$500,000
Funding amount 50% funding contribution from CatWalk + 50% funding contribution from HRC
CatWalk payments Feb 2019 NZ$91,269 – Feb 2020 NZ$79,365 – Feb 2021 NZ$79,365

This project investigates an innovative new treatment combining both beneficial electrical fields and nerve growth factors to regenerate damaged nerves following spinal cord injury (SCI). The team will first determine the best combination of treatment parameters using cell-based models before delivering them through a bioelectronic implant to an animal model. In the animal model of SCI they seek to demonstrate that damaged nerves can be regenerated and functional recovery achieved.

Microelectrodes will deliver electrical signals to the nerve cells of the spinal cord, encouraging them to grow and reconnect. These electrodes can also be used to deliver growth-promoting drugs to the cord in combination with electrical stimulation. This transformative technology has the potential to boost the body’s innate ability to heal itself, and would deliver both health and economic benefits to New Zealand.

Blocking chronic inflammation – project extension due to COVID-19

Host institution The University of Auckland
Research location Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF)
Researcher Dr Sheryl Tan
Funding amount $22,464
Funding term 12 weeks – commencing 1 June 2020.

Testing an existing drug (Tonabersat) to stop chronic inflammation. Funding is for the completion of the analysis of the data and to provide training for students in the lab.

Due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions impacting on site access, an extension of funding to cover Dr Sheryl Tan’s salary was approved. This funding is to allow the completion of data analysis.

Neurostimulation treatments for people with spinal cord injury.

Host institution Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), Sydney
Lead Researcher Prof Simon Gandevia
August 2020 AU$600,000
December 2020 AU$250,000
June 2021 AU$600,000
December 2021 AU$300,000
Funding term 24 months

The CatWalk Trust (CatWalk), SpinalCure Australia (SpinalCure) and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) are delighted to be collaborating to develop neurostimulation treatments for people with spinal cord injury.

CatWalk and SpinalCure have committed to fundraising AU$1.75m each for the NeuRA research program and are about half way through that goal.

Of all promising avenues of research, neurostimulation has delivered the most compelling results to date — returning significant feeling and function to people who have been paralysed for many years.

Participants in early neurostimulation research overseas have reported improvements in areas such as bladder and bowel control, cardiovascular stability, temperature control, sexual function and, movement and muscle control. In recently published research some have also regained the ability to stand and take steps.

The team at NeuRA are working out of a newly established Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre to concentrate on immediate opportunities for those living with spinal injury. The research is being led by Professor Simon Gandevia (FAA FAHMS FRACP) and by Professor Jane Butler (PhD) who together have a long history of distinguished work in human neurophysiology and spinal injury.

With sufficient funding, neurostimulation treatments could be made available to New Zealanders and Australians in the relatively near future.

Initial human clinical research has already commenced at NeuRA and a globally important clinical trial is poised to commence. This collaboration with CatWalk and SpinalCure has the potential to develop treatments that could greatly improve people’s abilities, general health and outlook.

Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF)

Host institution The University of Auckland
Research location Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF)
Director Dr Simon O’Carroll
Technical Manager Barbara Fackelmeier
Funding amount NZ$580,990 over five years ($116,176.00 p.a.)
Funding term 1 August 2020 – 31 July 2025, five years

A major initiative of the SCIRF continues to be training of biomedical students in spinal cord injury research and development of novel treatments for spinal cord injury. Funding for this covers the cost of highly specialised technical support and access to the world-class animal facility to support ongoing projects and collect pilot data to be used to attract funding from others sources, and summer studentship funding that allows the recruitment and training of postgraduate students.

Providing security of funding for the SCIRF allows the team to continue to attract and retain high quality staff and students crucial for building on the existing current projects as well as developing news ideas both locally and through international collaborations.

SCIRF carries out experiments in the Vernon Jansen Animal Unit (VJU) at the University of Auckland. The VJU is a state-of-the-art, high-containment animal facility that provides support for projects that have high-level containment requirements.

Long term funding for a technician ensures the employment of a highly experienced animal technician Barbara Fackelmeier. Barbara has over 15 years’ experience working with animals and is crucial to provide ongoing training in animal care and behavioural testing to new staff and students as well as providing ongoing technical, surgical and animal care support for postdocs and students within the SCIRF.

Being able to offer summer student scholarships allows the team to bring high quality medical and science students into the lab and introduce them to the field of spinal cord injury research.

The NZ Brain Bee Challenge (NZBBC)

NZ$15,000 committed to annually in July until 2024.
2020 event cancelled due to COVID

The NZBBC is a competition for high school students in year 11 to learn about the brain and its functions, learn about neuroscience research, find out about careers in neuroscience and to dispel misconceptions about neurological and mental illnesses.

The NZBBC provides current and accurate information on the latest advances in neuroscience research, its value to the community, and promote careers in science and technology.