NZ equestrian’s trust gives $75,000 boost to spinal injury research

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Griffith University Associate Professor James St John, who is leading a research project into spinal cord repair and regeneration.
Griffith University Associate Professor James St John, who is leading a research project into spinal cord repair and regeneration.

The spinal injury research trust founded by former New Zealand equestrian Catriona Williams has awarded a $75,000 grant to an Australian university investigating how cellular intervention can promote spinal cord repair and regeneration.

Using the grant from the CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Research Trust (CatWalk Trust), researchers at the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia will study the capacity to grow “nerve bridges” at cellular level that can create stable connections within a spinal injury site.

They achieve this by growing a combined culture of two types of cell – “fibroblasts”, a type of cell that provides structural and biochemical support to the surrounding cells, alongside “olfactory ensheathing cells” (OECs), a type of cell found in the nervous system that helps to provide nutrition and physical support – which are then introduced to the area surrounding the damaged spinal cord.

The co-culture, called a nerve bridge, is then introduced to the hostile environment around the damaged spinal cord, where it helps to foster interactions to stabilise the environment, and allow the damaged spinal cord to begin a process of repair or regeneration.

The research has already shown promising results in the creation of two-dimensional cells grown in the lab, and the researchers have also successfully constructed three-dimensional cell constructs. The next step is to determine whether the nerve bridges they produce are healthy, and whether they will continue to be healthy once they are introduced to the damaged spinal cord.

“We now know we’re able to produce the cells, and we have conducted successful tests in two-dimensional models,” says Associate Professor James St John, who is leading the research project.

“But the real-world application will happen in three dimensions, and that is where our focus is currently. The bigger the cell nerve bridges get, the more complicated the process becomes, and the more variables there are to practical application in a clinical environment.”

Chief among those variables, St John says, is the ratio of fibroblasts to OECs, and the density of the three-dimensional culture. But it’s not a simple process, and one that relies on a long process of trial and error, working closely with clinicians to address the technical requirements of the treatment.

It’s a process that he likens to building a bridge over a river, in that the cellular nerve bridge must meet every possible variable in order to function properly.

The funding from the CatWalk Trust will be directed at addressing those variables, to accelerate the clinical trials process using three-dimensional nerve bridges. It means the team will be able to conduct higher risk trials, which could produce better results in clinical therapy.

“We are now trying to get to a stage where we can demonstrate positive outcomes in clinical trials, and the CatWalk Trust grant is critical in helping us to expedite the process of checking the many, many variables that arise in a real-world environment,” St John said.

The CatWalk Trust was founded in 2005 by Catriona Williams, who was injured in an eventing fall in 2002. [File image] © Steph Freeman
Catriona Williams MNZM, founder of the CatWalk Trust and a C6/C7 tetraplegic since 2002, says that directing funding towards speeding up the clinical process is typical of CatWalk Trust’s dedication to supporting pioneering and ground-breaking research projects, and its tireless efforts to get people out of wheelchairs and back on their feet.

“New Zealand has one of highest rates of spinal cord injury per capita in the Western world,” she says. “Every year, between 80 to 130 people per year suffer an acute spinal cord injury – one that results in paralysis.”

“Spinal cord injury has an overwhelming impact here in New Zealand, as it does in Australia, and the opportunity to speed up new therapeutic interventions like those being investigated by Assoc Prof St John and his team was a major driver in CatWalk Trust awarding the funding grant.”

St John said that speeding up the clinical process is where the research will have its most demonstrable impact. “We are essentially trying to do everything at once – the real driver being to get our research out there as fast as possible,” he says.

The core project is also funded by the Queensland State Government and the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation.

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