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
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
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
"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