University of Calgary

Regrowing nerves

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A new life for people with brain or spinal cord injuries

syed with microchipBy Karen Thomas

Neuroscientists, brain surgeons, graduate students, rehabilitation specialists and neurologists are joining forces to develop new technology aimed at repairing and regenerating peripheral nerves that connect the brain, spinal cord and the body. The Western Canada Regeneration Initiative, with members from the universities of Calgary, Alberta and Saskatchewan, has been awarded a $2.25-million team grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study how best to heal and regrow nerves that have been damaged by injury or disease.

“Our scientific team includes experts from three universities—brain surgeons, electrical engineers, neurologists, and neuroscience researchers like me,” says Naweed Syed, PhD, professor and head of cell biology and anatomy, and research director, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine. “If we generate electrical signals on a microchip, we can guide nerve cells sitting on that chip to grow and connect along specific pathways. Our dream is to bypass scar tissue and put nerve communication back on track. That would mean a new life for people with brain or spinal cord injuries.”

This initiative is founded upon the marriage of nerve cells to microchip technology. The team’s research is aimed at creating a tube-shaped microchip designed to send out electrical signals to encourage nerve fibers to grow together and connect to one another. “At present, we have regeneration tubes that we implant for people who have suffered traumatic injuries. But these tubes are, at best, a passive bridge between nerve endings,” says Dr. Doug Zochodne, professor of neurosciences and neurologist, UCalgary Faculty of Medicine. “Often, our repair strategies are only partly successful, and people experience neuropathic pain as a major side-effect.”

In addition to Zochodne and Syed, the team includes:

  • Dr. Ming Chan, associate professor, physical medicine and rehabilitation who studies how electrical stimulation in patients may speed recovery, and Tessa Gordon, PhD, professor, Centre for Neuroscience who researches how electrical stimulation causes motor nerves to regrow. Both are in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta.

  • Graham Jullien, PhD, professor of engineering and iCORE Research Chair in Advanced Technology Information Processing Systems, UCalgary, who specializes in microchip design.

  • Dr. Rajiv Midha, head of neurosurgery, Calgary Health Region, who repairs human nerve injuries, and investigates bridging the gaps between severed nerves.

  • Valerie Verge, PhD, professor of cell biology and anatomy, University of Saskatchewan who is expert in growth factors and the regeneration of sensory nerves.

“The expertise we’ve gathered is considerable,” says Zochodne. “We’re building upon the scientific and clinical discoveries already made by the members of our team. Our ultimate goal is to undertake clinical trials and offer some real hope for people who are suffering with untreatable nerve damage.”

Funding support for this project has come from the Regenerative Medicine and Nanomedicine Initiative within CIHR’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. Dr. Zochodne’s research is also funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research.