The challenge of SCI

There are millions of people around the world suffering from severe disabilities resulting from traumatic spinal cord injuries (SCI). A common public misconception is that sports activities account for the majority of SCIs, however studies show that the two leading causes of spinal cord injuries are motor vehicle accidents and falls in persons over 65 years of age and older. We are therefore all at risk. Australia unfortunately has one of the highest rates of SCI per capita in the developed world and despite advances in rehabilitative medicine, the quality of life for patients who survive a severe spinal cord injury is poor. At present there are no clinically approved interventions that can promote significant recovery of spinal function after SCI – particularly for patients with long term chronic injuries. However, we believe that is all about to change!

Treatment strategies for chronic neurological disorders

A primary focus of initial phases of funding will be the development of novel, clinically relevant strategies for promoting the formation of new neural circuits (“neuro-plasticity”) within both the brain and spinal cord that can support recovery of neurological functions. As the vast majority of spinal cord injuries are anatomically and functional “incomplete” injuries (i.e. there are surviving circuits), strategies that can support recovery of function through promoting neuro-plasticity offer a rational therapeutic approach for treatment of chronic spinal cord injury. Importantly, neuro-plasticity based therapies developed with StepAhead Australia funds will also be applicable to treatment of a wide variety of chronic neurological disorders such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, dementias, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS), where formation of new circuits in the brain and spinal cord could feasibly improve neurological function and quality of life.

Spinal Cord Regeneration Research at the Florey

Dr. Stephen Davies and his colleague Dr. Jeannette Davies, are an internationally renowned spinal cord regeneration research team whose discoveries have been featured in news articles, books and magazines around the world. With support from StepAhead Australia, the Davies team have recently been recruited to Australia from the US and are in the process of establishing a new Spinal Cord Regeneration Program at the prestigious Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne. The primary focus of the new research division will be the rapid “translation” of scientific breakthroughs from the lab to the clinic. We are pleased to announce that Lions Australia have supported the establishment of a new Lions Australia Spinal Cord Fellowship at the Florey (LASCF).

New breakthrough technologies ready for use in humans

The Davies team have already developed two, new technologies that have shown remarkable levels of functional recovery in pre-clinical SCI studies.

  1. Infusion of a naturally occurring protein called Decorin to promote nerve fibre regeneration and increased connectivity (“plasticity’) of surviving circuits within the injured central nervous system (CNS). Award winning studies from the Davies team have previously shown that Decorin is highly effective at preventing the formation of scar tissue that can act as barrier to nerve fibre regeneration. Recently however the Davies team have discovered that infusion of human Decorin to cerebrospinal fluid can promote truly remarkable levels of neuro-plasticity and recovery of locomotor function in pre-clinical rodent spinal cord injury models – even when infused 6 months after injury (manuscripts in preparation).
  2. New stem cell technologies for making “star cells”. Neurons actually only account for ~15% of cells in the human brain and spinal cord (CNS). Cells called astrocytes (“star cells”) account for more than 50% of cells in the human CNS. There is currently a revolution taking place in neuroscience with scientists now realizing that astrocytes have their own signalling networks and that these cells control the ability of neurons to make neural connections called synapses. Working in partnership with collaborators at University of Rochester, NY the Davies team have pioneered the development of novel stem cell technologies that allow for the first time the generation of specific beneficial sub-types of human astrocytes that are suitable for repairing the injured or diseased central nervous system. Importantly the Davies team have shown that transplantation of the right types of stem cell-derived astrocytes can promote robust recovery of function in pre-clinical SCI studies.

An opportunity to lead the world in treatment of neurological disorders

We believe these exciting clinically relevant studies reveal the latent capacity of the adult brain and spinal cord to recover given the right intervention and provide strong rationales for funding the translation of newly emerging technologies to use in humans as soon as possible. This is the primary goal of StepAhead Australia's support of Spinal Cord Regeneration Program at the Florey. Once fully established the new program will serve as a magnet for the best and brightest neuro-regeneration scientists from within Australia and around the world.