Heather Munroe-Blum
  Ted Chamberlin
Susan Horton
Molly Shoichet
  Great Minds,No Walls
  Tim Rowley
Aled Edwards
  Helen Hogg

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First steps down a new path

Finding a cure for people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries is complicated. But Professor Molly Shoichet, of U of T's chemical engineering department, thrives on resolving difficult problems. Her latest project, aimed at regenerating damaged nerves in the spinal cord, may be her biggest challenge yet.

Twenty years ago, researchers discovered that nerve fibres from other parts of the body could be grafted onto the spinal cord. Despite this breakthrough, restored body movement and sensation have never been achieved. But Shoichet's team of researchers is putting a new spin on old theories with an artificial device that may be the missing ingredient. "The problem is huge, and there are no easy answers," says Shoichet, "but we're tackling it from a different angle: device design."

The team is developing an artificial tube that will foster nerve growth and possibly eliminate the need for nerve transplants. The success of traditional transplants has been hindered by several problems. First, not enough nerve cells are growing; second, the transplanted nerves are not growing into the central nervous system (CNS); and third, surgeons must create a secondary injury by removing a nerve from another part of the body.

The synthetic "pipeline" that Shoichet's team is developing may overcome all of these challenges. "Nerve fibres need three things," says Shoichet, who received a Premier's Research Excellence Award from the Province of Ontario for her research. "They need a pathway to grow along, they need molecules to encourage growth, and they need signals to guide them in the right direction. Our work is geared to developing an artificial device that will meet all of these needs."

At the moment, Shoichet's team is designing the tube itself, and modifying its surface to create the proper environment for nerves to grow. The next step is to find a way to reconnect the growing nerves to the central nervous system. But this is no small task.

Researchers have discovered that the CNS actually inhibits nerve growth, so Shoichet's challenge is to find a way of neutralizing this process and encouraging new nerves to regrow in the CNS. The development of this innovative device holds promise for the future of nerve regeneration, but the road ahead is a long one.

"It's a lengthy process," says Shoichet, "but tissue engineering is a new field and I'm very excited to be carving out a niche that will, one day, enhance the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries.

- Althea Blackburn Evans

University of Toronto