An Australian team headed by UNSW's Professor Phil Waite has won a million-dollar grant from the NSW Department of Health to trial potential stem cell therapies to repair injured spinal cords.
Professor Waite, who is Head of the UNSW Neural Injury Research Unit, and a group of fifteen investigators propose to explore the use of stem cells from bone marrow for repairing spinal cord injury.
The specific aims of the project are to compare human adult stem cells obtained from bone marrow, cells from the nose (olfactory glial cells) and embryonic stem cells for their therapeutic potential for spinal cord repair, and to find the best combination of therapeutic cells and methods of delivery for improvements in injured spines.
The team's hypothesis is that human bone marrow stem cells, in combination with olfactory glial cells, will provide both neural repair and regeneration resulting in significant functional recovery to justify a trial in spinal cord patients.
Spinal cord injury continues to be a major cause of reduced quality of life, particularly for young people involved in road-related trauma, falls and sports injuries. About 300 Australians each year sustain a severe traumatic spinal cord injury, with associated management costs of more than half a million dollars each. Many are left with permanent disabilities and constant dependence for the rest of their lives.
Professor Waite is also Director of Research of UNSW's School of Medical Sciences. Her most significant contribution in the field of spinal cord injury research has been to show improvements in locomotor function in an animal model of spinal cord injury, by transplanting supporting cells from the adult nose (olfactory ensheathing cells).
This advance was crucial because it opened the way for use of olfactory cells from the spinal patients themselves, obtained by simple nasal biopsy. This solved two difficulties, finding an ethically acceptable source of cells and reducing problems of immune rejection. The encouraging results have led to a safety trial of these cells in spinal patients, presently underway at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. It is hoped that the addition of stem cells will achieve further improvements worthy of trial in spinal patients.