When a person suffers a traumatic spinal cord injury, a gap forms that blocks the flow of information between the brain and the rest of the body below the site of injury. It’s a life-altering condition that can come with paralysis, loss of bladder and sexual function, and physical limitations that make it difficult to live independently.
“Mend the Gap is a group of scientists and social scientists from around the world who have come together to try and mend the gap,” says Molly Shoichet, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“Even though there’s been more research and greater understanding of the challenges, we still don’t have any solutions.”
Mend the Gap aims to change that. Their group spans academic institutions, non-profit, and charitable organizations across five countries. The work is supported by the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund.
Their new approaches to treating spinal cord injury might one day restore lost function.
“What’s really exciting about Mend the Gap, which is being hosted by the School of Biomedical Engineering, the problems are really starting to converge on ones that take advantage of the skill sets of biomedical engineers,” says Peter Zandstra, Director of the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.
“Can we design better materials with electrical conducting properties? And how might electrical stimulation, mechanical stimulation, and other things help overcome some of the challenges associated with spinal cord injury that heretofore have been really not possible to tackle?”
Mend the Gap takes advantage of interdisciplinary collaboration to make the biggest impact.
“It really sits at the core of bringing in scientists, engineers, social scientists, and clinicians to work on one single problem,” says Dena Shahriari, assistant professor at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.
“Maybe if we put them together it’s going to get us to really improving function after spinal cord injury.”
The team is excited to make a difference in the lives of people with spinal cord injuries. Even restoring bladder and sexual function would be a welcome change. And ultimately they hope to help people walk again.
“We’ve got that big vision that we’re all going down that same highway, but we also see a series of off-ramps, you know, a little bit like the trip to the moon,” adds Shoichet.
“There were all these different technologies that came came out of that. So we have that continuum all the way from, I wonder if we can actually do this, to connecting with the patient community to see how they will receive it. And that’s really exciting.”