Treating spinal cord injuries with a mixture of immature spinal cord neurons and stem cells, also known as "designer neurons," has led to some improved, though limited, results in some patients. Success depends on the new cells forming working connections with the surviving nerve cells in the spinal cord.
Currently, researchers can test the effectiveness of stem cell transplants on spinal cord injuries by measuring gross motor skills and recovery of the senses, as well as other assessments to determine if the transplanted designer neurons are growing and forming new synapses. However, it is extremely difficult to measure the functionality of connections within the transplanted neural networks.
Jeffrey Gamble, a doctoral student in the lab of Dennis Barbour, MD, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, is developing a new cell culture platform that will allow biomedical engineers and spinal cord injury researchers to better evaluate communication and interactions between the designer neurons and surviving native spinal cord neurons. This platform will give researchers some insight into whether the designer neurons have properties conducive to effective stem cell therapy.
"When neurons are injected into the site of injury, they form network connections among themselves and to existing cells to restore function," Gamble says. "This project focuses on connectivity, how these stem cell-derived neurons talk to each other and if certain populations of neurons talk to each other better than others."
Gamble will be doing the research with funding from a two-year, nearly $250,000 grant from the Spinal Cord Injuries Research Program at the University of Missouri recently awarded to Barbour.
Gamble says different types of neurons may be better candidates for transplanting in a spinal cord injury than others. His doctoral thesis project is looking at V2a interneurons, which have been implicated as potential transplant candidates because of their ability to excite other neurons and to communicate over long distances in the spinal cord.
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