More than a dozen Rochester scientists seeking ways to reverse or lessen the effects of paralysis and other effects of spinal cord injury will begin new projects and continue promising research, thanks to motorists in New York State who push the gas pedal a little too far.
Three research projects at the University of Rochester Medical Center are among the programs funded this year through the Spinal Cord Injury Research Program run by the New York State Department of Health. The program, created in 1998, uses fines paid by speeding motorists to fund research into spinal cord injury, whose number-one cause nationwide is motor vehicle accidents. In Rochester this year the grants are going to Roman Giger, Ph.D.; Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., Ph.D.; and Mark Noble, Ph.D.
Giger, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Genetics and a scientist in the Center for Aging and Developmental Biology, will use a two-year, $300,000 grant to work closely with Shey Shing Sheu, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Physiology, in an effort to identify molecules that stop nerves from growing back once they've been severed. Giger is an expert on how axon guidance molecules act as a sort of traffic cop in the central nervous system, determining the paths along which nerve cells grow to link up with each other to form vast networks. He has identified molecules that likely play a role in preventing the spinal cord from growing back after an injury. He'll work closely with Sheu, who is an expert at imaging calcium, an important communication tool cells use to do many things, including stopping neurons from growing. The team will use Sheu's system to learn more about such signals with the ultimate hope of persuading nerve cells in the spine to grow again.
Nedergaard, together with colleagues at New York Medical College, will use a four-year, $1.2 million grant to study the role of star-shaped cells known as astrocytes in spinal cord injury. Traditionally such research focuses on regeneration of neurons, the nerve cells that send electrical signals to one another. But Nedergaard, a professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and a researcher in the Center for Aging and Developmental Biology, has discovered that astrocytes are very important in spinal cord injury as well as epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, and migraine headaches. With a previous $1.25 million grant through the same program, she has found that soon after a spinal cord injury, astrocytes release high levels of a substance known as ATP that continues to kill neurons for hours after the injury. The new grant enables her team to continue its work exploring ways to lessen the damage from a spinal cord injury by targeting astrocytes.
Noble, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Genetics, is working together with Giger to focus on another aspect of spinal cord injury. In addition to the severing of nerves that is at the core of such an injury, the nerves sustain other damage, including the loss of the myelin covering that enables the nerves to send crisp electrical signals. Noble and Giger will use a two-year, $227,000 grant to try to identify the molecules in the central nervous system that prevent the remyelination of nerves that have been damaged. Noble is an internationally recognized expert in the biology of the specialized cells called oligodendrocytes that provide myelin for nerve cells. He and Giger will explore the complex molecular environment around the site of a spinal cord injury in an effort to find out what stops those cells from fixing damaged nerves in the spine.
In addition to his own research, Noble helps to manage spinal cord research throughout the state through his role as co-director of the New York State Center of Research Excellence in Spinal Cord Injury. The five-year, $15 million effort is funding a consortium of 18 top laboratories in a variety of approaches to ease the impact of spinal cord injury. In Rochester the program funds Noble, Giger, Margot-Mayer Proschel, Ph.D., and Peter Shrager, Ph.D.