Behind the scenes

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This week Dr Mark Kotter and Wings for Life UK hosted a lab tour and invited supporters to learn more about the fascinating spinal cord injury research that is being funded here in the UK thanks to our generous supporters.

Those attending the afternoon at the Centre for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at the University of Cambridge included UK ambassadors Nick Ashley-Cooper, Sean Rose and Mark Pollock, the new chairman of the board of trustees Andy Shaw and other supporters.

Mark Kotter’s research project aims to restore function in partially damaged nerve cells. He specializes in finding ways to trigger myelin regeneration (also known as remyelination) after injury. Surrounding the axon of every healthy nerve cell is an insulating myelin sheath. In spinal cord injury patients, these myelin sheaths often become damaged and fail to regenerate causing a loss of mobility and function.

We spoke to Mark Kotter about his motivations, his research and his hopes for the future of his research:

What drives you in your work?
I think as a scientist you always have to have an endogenous fascination with nature or biological processes or cells, in my case. I don’t know how to explain why – cells are just something that have a magic attraction. That’s probably the main driver for me, plus the process of discovery. Whilst it can be frustrating at times, when you discover new things it’s extremely rewarding.
Being a neurosurgeon I’m also involved in care for spinal cord injured patients. As a clinician I have the benefits of being able to help patients on a day by day basis. But frankly in the context of spinal cord injury, the means are very limited and it’s quite frustrating that we can’t offer more. That frustration also drives my scientific research.

What is your particular area of interest?
I’m really drawn into stem cell research. At present I am especially interested in the re-generation of myelin sheaths because it’s a very tangible goal for central nervous system repair. Our bodies have an inherent tendency to be able to restore myelin sheaths and therefore it’s a door that’s already slightly opened by nature. With research, we aim to open that door fully. This makes this area of research very clinically applicable to patients with damage to their central nervous system.

How could you work impact people with a spinal cord injury?
We hope to develop a treatment which focuses on myelin-sheath repair and whilst we don’t expect it will solves all issues, we hope it will have a significant impact on the lives of people with injuries or diseases which have damaged the functioning of their central nervous system.
It’s likely that there will be no cure without neuronal repair. But getting neurones to re-grow is probably more difficult than trying to preserve the function of neurons which have survived the blow. I hope that by working on myelin sheath regeneration, we will be able to bring treatments to patients more quickly.