Scientists at the Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains, N.Y., have received a $2 million grant from the NIH to study ways to enhance the survival of cell transplants for spinal cord repair. Cell transplants are a potential therapy for spinal cord injuries, which affect hundreds of thousands of Americans and for which few treatment options currently exist.
Caitlin Hill, Ph.D., the director of Spinal Cord Injury Preclinical Studies at Burke Medical Research Institute, is the primary investigator for the four-year grant.
The central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, is extremely difficult to repair after injury, but cell transplants have shown promise in this regard. Healthy cells are transplanted to the site of injury, where they may replace and encourage the regeneration of damaged cells. One challenge facing the clinical use of cell transplants is that many of the transplanted cells die soon after transplantation in a process known as necrosis. Necrosis is a cellular reaction to stress, in which the deteriorating cells unleash intracellular contents that may damage surrounding tissue—in the case of cell transplants, the very tissue they are supposed to help repair.
Hill’s laboratory plans to investigate whether certain cellular pathways can be manipulated to make transplanted cells more robust and resistant to necrosis. Using genetic and pharmacological methods, they hope to activate the cells’ adaptive survival response to prevent necrosis. They then will determine whether reducing necrosis makes cell transplants more effective.
The experiments, carried out in rodent models of spinal cord injury, will yield insights into the basic biology of cell transplants and optimize their benefits for human use. A better understanding of transplanted cell death will apply not only to spinal cord injuries, but also to a wide range of medical conditions that may be treated by cell transplants, from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes.
The grant is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the NIH, and was selected through a rigorous peer review system. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awards approximately 20% of the more than 3,000 applications it receives each year.