The International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury
is the centerpiece of the Reeve Foundation’s efforts to promote repair and functional recovery in the injured spinal cord.
The Consortium comprises several large neuroscience labs at major universities, each led by a distinguished senior scientist, not all of whom have a specific spinal cord trauma resume. The Consortium was formed in 1995 with a deliberatively collaborative research agenda. The idea was to encourage the sharing of information and methods across specialties; in the process, this would reduce institutional and proprietary friction and thereby speed progress.
A week or so ago The Foundation Board of Directors renewed grants to continue participation from six labs, led by: Ben Barres
, MD, Ph.D., Stanford University; V. Reggie Edgerton
, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles; James W. Fawcett
, Ph.D., University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK; Lorne M. Mendell
, Ph.D., State University of New York, Stony Brook; Samuel L. Pfaff
, Ph.D., The Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA; Martin E. Schwab
, Ph.D., University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
The Board also approved the addition of a seventh lab, the Aileen Anderson
group at the University of California, Irvine (Reeve-Irvine Research Center). Anderson has been in the news a lot in recent months; her science (with husband Brian Cummings) is behind the current clinical trial (in Switzerland, StemCells, Inc
.) for neural stem cell transplants in people injured six months to a year.
The addition of Anderson illustrates a huge success story for the Consortium. When the group was formed, it was decided that each participating lab would designate a post-doctoral student as an “Associate;” this highly-skilled young scientist would be the point person on collaborations and in-house studies related to the larger group. Anderson was the Associate for the Carl Cotman lab, one of the founding labs in the Consortium. (Only the Schwab lab remains from the original member labs). Cotman’s focus was on neurodegeneration – applicable to the spinal cord but that’s not what drew Anderson to come to his lab as a post-doc. She was interested in studying Alzheimer’s.
Once Anderson got started in Consortium research, though, she switched over full time to study repair in the injured cord. After she left the Cotman lab, she started her own group at UCI, got onboard early with stem cells and has become a pioneer, and leader, in the field.
Anderson has always been close to the Consortium; since 2002 she has run what’s called its Animal Core Lab. It’s a support lab for others in the field, and industry. It makes it possible for laboratories without in-house expertise (such as those of Barres and Pfaff), to conduct spinal injury experiments. In Anderson’s words:
At the time the Consortium was formed, only a handful of the labs had direct expertise in spinal cord injury. The rest of the players were really SCI novices – well respected within their individual fields, very prominent labs, but from other areas of expertise. The goal was to get the various labs to direct their particular expertise to the problem of spinal cord injury. Forming a focused collaborative network meant that the labs had to either quickly develop expertise, or rely on the labs that had expertise. As The Consortium progressed, the load on the labs that did have spinal cord injury expertise grew significantly. The idea came about to increase opportunity for collaboration and decrease the load on individual labs by making a core facility – a separate lab that first and foremost provides support to the main Consortium labs.
Now, named to the Consortium an a full fledged PI (principal investigator), Anderson comes full circle -- the first Associate to join the Consortium. This is real tribute to Anderson, and also to the Associates program. Of 48 Associates who have tracked through the program, at least 25 now have their own labs.
The Board renewal was underscored by 21 collaborative projects across three research themes:
Spinal cord function and understanding the anatomy and physiology of the normal spinal cord;
Modifying circuitr: understanding how new circuits form through sprouting and synaptogenesis and how to modulate these circuits by changing synaptic strength and excitability.
Axon regeneration and restoration of long tracts in the spinal cord with a focus on environmental factors and on the intrinsic ability of axons to regenerate.
Here is a sample of funded collaborations:
Interaction of locomotor training and human neural stem cell transplantation in cervical SCI, Anderson lab (Associate Hirokazu Sawai), Edgerton lab (Associates Guillermo Garcia-Alias, Prithvi Shah).
The role of microglia in spinal cord injury, Barres lab (Associates Jennifer Zamanian, Chris Bohlen), Schwab lab (Associate Kanchan Bisht), Anderson lab (Associate Francisca Benvenite).
Combining viral BDNF and Chondroitinase in a contusion model of spinal cord injury: effects on restoring coordination between forelimbs and hind limbs, Mendell lab (Associate Vanessa Boyce), Fawcett lab (Associate Melissa Andrews).
Effects of anti-Nogo antibodies on spinal learning, Edgerton lab (Associates Shah, Garcia-Alias), Schwab lab (Associates Lukas Bachmann, Ajmal Zemmar).
Defining spinal interneurons that receive regenerating corticospinal inputs following injury, Fawcett lab (Associate Sara Soleman), Pfaff lab (Associate Ariel Levine), Edgerton lab (Garcia-Alias).
Enhancing intrinsic regenerative ability through integrin engineering, Fawcett lab (Associates Richard Eva, Sara Soleman), Barres lab (Associates Amanda Brosius), Melissa Andrews.
We’ll look more closely at these and other collaborations in coming blog dispatches.