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Nosing out new treatments for spinal cord injury

Zoe Cortes

Zoe Cortes

29 May 2019

The treatment of spinal cord injury has seen some striking successes in recent years, although there are still a great many hurdles to be overcome. When the cord is injured, a variety of factors come into play which actively suppress new nerve growth. Zoe Cortes, a veterinary surgeon from the University of Bristol, has been investigating how cells from noses might help.

Using an Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Clinical Primer scheme award, Zoe Cortes, working under the auspices of Liang-Fong Wong and Nicolas Granger, looked at how to use hydrogels (large molecule polymer gel constructed of a network of crosslinked chains) to insert cells from the nose into injury sites. Called olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), these have the potential to encourage new nerve growth, by bridging the gap between cells in the injury site and creating a scaffold along which new nerves can grow.

After initial experiments to find out which hydrogels would be best suited, Ms Cortes settled on fibrin. Canine OECs were transfected with a virus containing a gene to make them fluoresce under a microscope (to determine which cells were which at the injury site) and then injected into rats with spinal cord injuries. The rat’s injuries were only mild, with a minor grasping deficit; the experiment was only to establish how well the new cells integrated rather than any return of function.

Two weeks later, the rats’ spinal cords were analysed under a microscope. In the cords injected with fibrin, every cord had a number of the transplanted cells; in control groups there were far fewer cells. Although these initial results look promising, more studies are being performed to optimize the conditions of the OEC-hydrogel transplants, as it is hoped that the work will have far-reaching consequences, as Ms Cortes explains:

“Our final aim to show that this combination of treatment could improve outcome from spinal cord injury, from increasing sensation to improving or even restoring muscle control. Initially, we hope to use this technique to help companion dogs with natural spinal cord damage, that would otherwise be put to sleep. In the longer term, this research could ultimately help in designing new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries”

And although Zoe Cortes encountered several setbacks during the course of her work - principally concerning reliably and accurately determined the stiffness of the hydrogels, she remains undeterred:

“Overall this has been a fantastic opportunity to reignite my scientific interests and has opened the door to a career in research. The Clinical Primer scheme has served as a great stepping-stone to a PhD fellowship in the veterinary field, which I am delighted to be starting later this year.

Zoe has recently been awarded a studentship with BBSRC South West Bioscience Doctoral Training Program, which she will be starting this September. The project she will be working on is: ‘How do dogs respond to changes in cortisol levels in conspecifics and humans?’ Main supervisor: Dr Nicola J Rooney (University of Bristol), second supervisor: Dr Carsten T Muller (Cardiff University). 

“The Clinical Primer scheme has been a great introduction into research; it has allowed me to become more independent as a clinician as well as a scientist. It has given me the freedom to explore, design and implement my own experiments as well as problem-solve when things didn’t go to plan! The scheme was the perfect opportunity for me to delve into research, and it provided the perfect springboard to a career as a clinical academic”.”
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