Spinal cord injury is a condition that has no cure. But a group of investigators from across Canada and around the world is working together to change that. They call themselves Mend the Gap, and their work combines advances in drug delivery, tissue engineering, and image-guided surgery to try to find ways to help the injured spinal cord to regenerate.
“Spinal cord injury is a really significant problem that we’re excited to tackle because of its impact on society,” says Peter Zandstra, Director of the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.
“Often people who have spinal cord injuries are younger and have their whole lives ahead of them, and if we can find new solutions to make the quality of life and the long-term outcome for these individuals better, it would be a great impact.”
Today’s treatment options for spinal cord injury are limited. The main option is to pair rehabilitation with electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, but this often yields little benefit. New technologies may be able to do more.
“We’re very motivated to take on that challenge right now because of advancements in robotics, and because of advancements in biomaterials — engineering materials — and because of advancements in our understanding of the basic biology” says Molly Shoichet, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“We’re really excited to be funded by the New Frontiers in Research Excellence fund — this is a new fund by the Canadian government where funds from Canada can go to international partners — because we can now bring the best to our country, and we can have that global community working together, but led out of Canada.”
That’s exciting news for Canadians, because homegrown innovations are what build an innovation economy. Being a hub for these world-class research projects will mean better infrastructure and connections for the people who work here.
“We have had decades of work: material scientists doing something, electrical engineers doing something, as well social scientists, and of course the clinicians and surgeons who really deal with this problem face-to-face every day,” says Dena Shahriari, assistant professor at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.
“And now in this opportunity we have brought in 32 principal investigators working toward this spinal cord injury challenge and trying to improve lives after for individuals.”
This scale of collaboration offers a wealth of expertise and diverse perspectives that will push the boundaries of what is possible.
“You know, it’s a big complicated problem,” adds Shoichet. “And there’s lots of different people working together, but I’m really excited personally to get moving and start doing that research.”