The statistics

  • The lack of spontaneous repair of the brain and spinal cord is a major socioeconomic problem with devastating personal consequences.
  • Worldwide, 2.5 million people live with the consequences of spinal cord injury, including about 50,000 in the UK, with 1000 new cases per year.
  • Approximately 80% of those living with a spinal cord injury are male, with the highest rate of injury occurring between ages 15-38. 
  • Common causes are falls, road accidents, and sports injuries (rugby, horse riding, diving, surfing), but certain disease states (tumours) also contribute.

The problem

Spinal cord injury leads to movement and sensory deficits below the point of injury. This is because nerve cell death and tissue trauma prevent electrical signals from crossing the damaged area.

After the initial injury a fluid-filled cyst surrounded by a fibrous scar forms, making a powerful physical barrier that prevents nerve regrowth across the injury site.

In addition, cells in the spinal cord react to injury by producing chemicals near the scar that act as 'stop growth' signals, further preventing nerve regrowth.

Collectively, these physical and chemical barriers prevent re-establishment of the pre-injury 'hard wired' connections needed for normal spinal cord function.

Less than 1% of spinal cord injuries show spontaneous recovery. So far there are no established regenerative therapies for spinal cord injury, highlighting the immense need for novel ways of approaching this challenge.

The unique Spinal Injury Research Team approach

The team was established in 2014 and first called the Aberdeen Nerve Repair Group. We aim to develop a multifaceted approach, combining innovative bioengineering methods and novel electrical, topographical, and chemical stimuli for nerve regeneration.

Our goal is to create conditions that will convert the chemical 'stop growth' signals to 'go' signals, whilst simultaneously providing a physical scaffold within the cyst to support nerve growth and an electrical environment that will coax nerves across the lesion.

The group comprises world leaders in the areas of nerve growth guidance, tissue engineering to repair nerve damage and preclinical modelling of spinal cord injury: Professor Colin McCaig, Professor Lynda Erskine, Dr Ann Rajnicek, Dr Derryck Shewan, and Dr Wenlong Huang. No such combined scientific expertise exists anywhere else in the UK.

Anticipated benefits

  • The ultimate goal is to bring new regenerative strategies for spinal cord repair to the clinic in the near future to improve functional recovery, which could cut medical costs by over 67% per person with spinal cord injury.
  • To cure spinal cord injury is an ambitious goal, and our group aims to become a front-runner in regeneration research, by combining our unique collective expertise to contribute significantly towards this long-term undertaking.
  • Our strategies to repair nerve connections in the central nervous system could also benefit patients with stroke and brain injuries.

On the road to recovery

  • We aim to identify new strategies to repair the injured nervous system.
  • We have developed physical scaffolds to support nerve regeneration.
  • We can use electrical cues to direct nerve growth.
  • We are using modern techniques to understand events inside developing and regenerating neurons important for promoting nerve growth and overcoming stop signals.
  • Now, by coming together to combine these approaches, the University of Aberdeen Spinal Injury Research Team is taking the next steps towards the road to regeneration.

The view from the group

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