Jessica Kwok is funded by Wings for Life and works with Professor James Fawcett at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair. We asked Jessica a few questions about her project and her motivations for conducting her research.
What motivates you in your work?
We have a clinic in our institute and we interact with people affected by spinal cord injury. Talking to them and their families has shown me that even a tiny functional regain may drastically improve their quality of life.
What is your work focusing on?
After an injury in the central nervous system, inhibitory molecules (known as ‘negative guidance molecules’) in the injured area block nerve repair. CSPGs (chrondroitin sulphate proteoglygans) which gather around the injury site are example of such molecules. The sugar chains (CS chains) on the CSPG molecules block regeneration in nerve cells which try to grow back and could potentially restore lost functions.
The injection of chondroitinase ABC (ChABC) has been shown to neutralise the negative impact of CSPGs. However, this method of treatment has challenges. My project is aiming to test and find other molecules that could neutralise the negative impact of CSPGs.
What is the ultimate goal of your project?
From our earlier work, we know that the action of ChABC is very promising. It encourages regeneration and functional recovery of nerve cells in tested laboratory models. The main problem is that the injection is rather invasive and has to be done repeatedly for a period of time. We therefore hope to develop a more practical and less invasive treatment to promote regeneration after injury.
How do you see the field of spinal cord injury research developing over the future?
It is still challenging. The nervous system is complicated and trying to understand how it works, not even saying how it repairs after injury, is a really difficult task. Fortunately, thanks to all the hard-working scientists working in the area, we have gained significant understanding in the last decade. The next big challenge is to try to make use of this information to improve regeneration in the nervous system. There are a few interesting molecules which may be targeted using different pharmaceutical ways and some of them are even in clinical trials. I believe the results from all these efforts will benefit spinal cord injured patients in a foreseeable future.