Pioneering spinal cord injury research gets $5.7m boost

The Palaszczuk Government has delivered a $5.7 million boost to world-leading Queensland research into developing cell-based therapy to treat spinal cord injuries.

Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad said the funding boost will help Griffith University researchers and continue ground-breaking work into spinal cord injury treatment.

“Today’s funding boost more than doubles the Queensland Government’s investment in this project, which has already led to a number of promising outcomes relating to nerve repair around the spinal cord,” the Deputy Premier said.

“This has also opened up the potential application to other parts of the body affected by peripheral nerve injury including the brain.”

Based at the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, the research was initially pioneered by Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim and is now being led by Associate Professors James St John and Jenny Ekberg.

The research aims to take cells from the nose – known as olfactory ensheathing cells – embed them in a 3D nerve bridge and implant that nerve bridge within the spinal cord to support the regeneration of damaged cells.

Associate Professor James St John from the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery said the Spinal Injury Project (SIP) was focused on developing an easily available, affordable and accessible treatment for patients with spinal injury.

“In Australia this represents more than 15,000 people and hundreds of thousands globally,’’ he said.

“We have been fortunate to have exceeded our own initial expectations and can now create much larger, more robust nerve bridges than we had first thought. It is clear that cell bridges improve cell survival and regeneration.

“We are reinventing and rethinking how cells can grow, which allows us to create new cell products never before thought possible. The next funding period will enable us to expand this technology and drive it to clinical trial.”

More than 30 people are currently working on five key streams of the SIP initiative, undertaking research into different elements of the development of a cellular therapy concurrently. The team includes PhD candidates and research staff from 17 countries with work carried out at Griffith facilities on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane.

The Queensland Government funding is provided through the Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC), which regulates the state’s Compulsory Third Party insurance scheme.

Queensland’s Insurance Commissioner Neil Singleton said road crashes are one of the leading causes of spinal cord injury in Australia with an estimated cost to the Australian healthcare system and society of $2 billion per year.

“Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of spinal cord injury, responsible for almost half of the 300 to 400 new cases reported across Australia each year,” he said.

“While MAIC is working hard supporting Queensland road safety initiatives to reduce the number of crashes and injuries on Queensland roads, sadly some crashes will occur.

“It is therefore important that we support the international team of brilliant and dedicated researchers led by Associate Professors St John and Ekberg – and the entire team here at the Griffith University – in their ground-breaking research to improve health outcomes for injured people and reduce the effects of serious spinal cord injury.”

Griffith University Vice Chancellor and President Professor Carolyn Evans said Griffith was proud to support this pioneering research, attracting significant investment in spinal research to get closer to the clinical application. 

“Griffith has been investing in research into spinal cord repair for two decades and we are committed to continuing the legacy of Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim in the endeavour to find a breakthrough in this important area.” 

Last modified 26 February 2020

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