Fundamental research and clinical studies

Funded projects

Jian Zhong, Burke Medical Research Institute, Weill Medical College, Cornell University

B-RAF activation as a way to enhance regeneration in the injured spinal cord

Philippa M. Warren, Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth Medical Centre

Promoting respiratory motor function after acute and chronic cervical contusion

David P. Stirling, Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, University of Louisville

The role of axoplasmic reticulum in axonal degeneration following SCI

Michael Sofroniew, University of California Los Angeles

Axon regrowth guided by growth factor gradients released from hydrogel depots

Friedrich Propst, Max F. Perutz Laboratories, University of Vienna

Microtubule dynamics as determinants of axon extension and retraction

Fatiha Nothias, Neuroscience Paris Seine, University P. & M. Curie

Combined strategy for spinal cord repair - a neuroprotective molecule linked to a bioactive hydrogel

Respiratory complications in Spinal Cord Injury - Influencing factors and potential for reduction

Gabi Müller, Clinical Trial Unit, Swiss Paraplegic Centre Nottwil Respiratory complications in Spinal Cord Injury - Influencing factors and potential for reduction

Many ways to achieve our goal

Key areas of research

Secondary damage (protection of intact cells)
A spinal cord injury is followed by a massive breakdown of neuronal and supporting cells (known as glial cells) around the site of injury. This area of research aims to prevent the secondary damage and therefore preserve more functions for those affected.

Plasticity
Spinal cord injury is accompanied by the release of substances that block the renewed growth of nerves. The aim is to find, analyse and eliminate these substances known as natural growth inhibitors. In the last few years major advancements have been made in this area of research. Additionally it is important to understand the mechanisms underlying the reorganization of the spinal circuitry and interconnections.

Regeneration
When an adult nerve fibre in the central nervous system is completely severed, its ability to regrow is very restricted. Wings for Life funds projects that searching for ways to stimulate nerves to regenerate and regrow.

Neural reconstruction
This area of research aims to replace destroyed tissue by the transplantation of cells and/or biomaterials. Very promising approaches focus on the use of stem cells or prosthetic biomaterials to repair injured spinal cord tissue.

Remyelination (insulation of nerve fibres)
Injured nerve fibres lose their protective cover, known as the myelin sheath. Like an electric wire that loses its insulation, the demyelinated nerve fibres lose their ability to properly transmit signals. Wings for Life supports research that aims to restore this protective sheath (remyelination) and to improve nerve cell function.

Imaging
A number of preclinical studies report positive results, like enhanced growth of nerve fibres and a better behavioral outcome. However, we currently lack imaging techniques to monitor the changes in the spinal cord tissue in vivo. This fact makes it difficult to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and to compare the results. Wings for Life is doing pioneering work in this field by funding studies aiming to develop better in vivo imaging techniques.

Rehabilitation/Compensatory treatment
Research projects in this area are not focused on direct restoration of the injured nervous system, but on the improvement of the functional deficits and thus improving the affected individual's quality of life. In this field, Wings for Life funds projects aimed at restoring bladder function and the treatment of neuropathic pain, and at developing new rehabilitation methods, to name but a few examples.

Wings for Life

Glossary

Please find explanations to technical terms in our glossary.

Scientific knowledge

Progress is being made

 

In the last few years Wings for Life has been able to initiate a large number of promising projects, especially in the fields of basic and preclinical research. The next major step will be to translate these into clinical studies that ultimately lead to treatments for spinal cord injury.

Due to the complex nature of paralysis, a combination of various therapeutic approaches seems to offer the best chances of success. Major approaches currently under development include:

Reducing secondary damage
An advanced area of research relates to treatment options for patients in the early stages after a spinal cord injury. Several pharmacological interventions are currently tested in clinical phase I/II studies, for example Riluzole or Minocycline. These pharmacological therapeutics are reported to reduce additional tissue damage resulting in a better functional recovery of the patients. A recently published study with Minocycline performed at the University of Calgary showed a better outcome in motor functions.

Eliminating growth inhibitors
After a spinal cord injury, there is a lot of cell debris in the spinal tissue which can significantly limit the regeneration of nerves. Various types of cell debris send signals to nerve fibres saying: “Stop. This is a dead end.” For example, one of the stop signs responsible is known to be the protein Nogo. A substance to counteract the effect of Nogo is already being tested in a clinical study for patients in the early stages after a spinal cord injury (Prof. Dr. Martin Schwab, Nogo antibody study by Novartis). In a model for those living with a spinal cord injury as an ongoing condition, Prof. Dr. Stephen M. Strittmatter and his research team have succeeded in blocking several of these stop signs simultaneously and as a result saw marked functional improvements.


Axon growth
Nerve cells in the central nervous system lose most of their ability to regenerate as they mature. Therefore, researchers focus on “switches” that would overcome this challenge. For example, the research group working with Zhigang He at the Children’s Hospital in Harvard has identified that it is possible to trigger the regeneration of axons to a previously unknown extent by eliminating two molecular stop signs within the nerve cell (PTEN and SOCS3).

Cell-based approaches
Based on successful preclinical projects, there is a lot of hope surrounding therapies with stem cells as these are able to form tissue scaffolds, release growth factors, form new circuits and promote the regrowth of the protective myelin sheath. There are still important questions surrounding which cells are compatible for transplantation into the injured spinal cord. Answers to these questions are being sought through a first European clinical study (phase I/II) using neural human precursor/stem cells at the University Clinic Balgrist under the direction of Prof. Dr. Armin Curt.

These examples of scientific results and developments provide strong hope that treatment options are closer than they have ever been. However, intensive research work will be needed before a breakthrough in human medicine can be achieved.

The best seal of approval

Reviewers

Leading scientists carry out a peer review process in order to select the most promising research projects. The following list names the scientists and clinicians who evaluated the projects that were submitted to Wings for Life in the past.

These highly reputable researchers and opinion leaders in their respective fields have helped to ensure optimal investment of Wings for Life funding in research. Their knowledge is essential for an independent and transparent selection of outstanding projects.

Publications

Researchers share their findings

Axon-soma communication in neuronal injury.

Nat Rev Neurosci, Jan 2014

Dynamic regulation of SCG10 in regenerating axons after injury

Experimental Neurology, Nov 2013