McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Spinal cord injury is focus of new research collaboration

Published: July 26, 2006
Rathbone and Jiang
Michel Rathbone and Shucui Jiang

A McMaster-based research group that is leading efforts to find a cure for paralysis is getting a hand with its ongoing funding challenges from a group of athletes who may someday benefit from the group’s work.

The Neurorestorative Group is a recently-established collaboration that is building on the existing strengths at McMaster in the field of spinal cord regeneration, drawing on the expertise of physicians, basic scientists, surgeons, rehabilitation specialists and social scientists.

The interdisciplinary nature of the group and the breadth of knowledge represented is unique in Canada, and possibly the world, said Dr. Michel Rathbone, a professor in the Department of Medicine and a world renowned researcher in spinal cord regeneration.

He and Shucui Jiang, the group’s co-ordinator and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, reported on the latest developments of the group’s work at an event this week, where it was announced that the 2006 Golden Horseshoe Marathon team is hoping to raise $500,000 to support the group.
Rathbone said that the Neurorestorative Group has initially decided to focus on chronic spinal cord injuries because of the pre-existing and substantial expertise in the field among McMaster’s scientists, researchers and physicians, in areas as diverse as kinesiology, molecular medicine, chemistry, pharmacology and cell biology.

The establishment of the group has made it possible for the various disciplines to share scientific and clinical knowledge and challenges, in order to advance research and treatments aimed at restoring function for those who have been paralysed by spinal cord injuries. The group also uses its combined knowledge for grant applications and determining the direction of future research.

"We have the brains, the talent and the individuals here already, and have brought them together in a unique group," said Rathbone. "For the first time, the basic scientists and the clinicians are able to sit down together and share their information in an iterative loop. The basic scientists can hear first-hand about the clinical problems, and the clinicians are made aware of the latest basic science developments."
An example of the type of work being advanced through the group is the accidental discovery by Jiang that resulted in rats being able to walk better after being paralysed. A method to regrow nerve casings required for the brain and body to communicate was discovered when Jiang used a naturally-occurring compound called guanosine to regenerate a protein and fatty substance called myelin that forms an insulating layer around nerves.

This myelin sheath allows rapid transmission of signals between the body and the brain, but those messages are disrupted when the myelin is damaged. Finding ways to regrow it is crucial to discovering how to restore and improve function in those paralysed by spinal cord injuries.

It was a major breakthrough for Jiang and Rathbone, who have also successfully regenerated nerves in the spines of rats by transplanting cells from the intestine to the spinal cord. It was also one of the discoveries that contributed to the establishment of the Neurorestorative Group, and follow-up to the discovery is being advanced by the group.

However, funding of this continuing research is an ongoing concern, and one of the reasons the 2006 Golden Horseshoe Marathon has decided to help.

Charlie Cetinski, the marathon founder and participant, said the work of the group gives paraplegics like himself hope that a cure may someday be found for paralysis.

"Knowing how close we are right here in Canada for a cure, really helps keep me going," he said.
The marathon is scheduled for September, but the amount organizers hope to raise is still only half of the $1 million needed to support the current research of the group.

The need for sustained funding of the group’s work is crucial, said Rathbone, in order to allow the exceptional resources already in place to achieve results.

The marathon is a grueling five-day, 212-kilometre event, in which wheelchair-bound participants go from the Niagara region to Queen’s Park, with stops along the way to help raise awareness of spinal cord injuries and collect donations. The participants train year-round in preparation for the marathon.

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