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Scheduling a private meeting with Stephen Strittmatter is challenging. At the Scientific Meeting in Salzburg he is usually surrounded by fellow researchers, engaged in animated discussions, or busy explaining his work. We, however, managed to arrange an interview after the lunch break.
Professor Strittmatter, what did you have for lunch?
(laughs) I didn’t eat anything, actually. I spent some time exercising in the hotel’s fitness area. Sport is important for my inner balance.
How did you come to be a scientist?
I’ve always had an interest in research, even as a child. I discovered the field of neuroscience in high school. I was fascinated by how the brain and nervous system work. I couldn’t imagine any more exciting questions than the ones posed by this field. I studied medicine alongside neuroscience. In dealing with patients, one learns many things that are invaluable in a laboratory.
Now you specialise in spinal cord injuries. Why?
Axons and their networks really impress me and I am aware of their decisive role in spinal cord injuries. After all, there is an evident problem of interruption in this area. When I met Annette, a patient living with a spinal cord injury, I discovered her personal story. She motivated me even more to make a difference.
You have been researching for many years. Do you always have an exact plan?
80 to 90 percent of science is predictable. There are clear rules regarding successive steps. There are, however, moments when something utterly surprising happens. It’s like a new door being blown open. You have no idea where it leads, but you really want to walk through it and discover something new. The great moments for us were when we found out more about Nogo and Nogo receptors. That was hitherto unknown.
What exactly did you and your team discover?
There are proteins that can stop the growth of axons, i.e. nerve fibres. That’s what we’ve been focusing on. We discovered a receptor for this protein and developed an interceptor molecule called the “Nogo trap”. It protects the nerve fibres’ receptors from being detected and inhibited by the proteins.
That sounds very complicated. Can you explain what that means in practice?
We injected this molecule into the spinal fluid of rats with spinal cord injuries. And this is where the magic happens. Almost one third of the rats were able to regain full movement, even when we began the therapy a full three months after the injury occurred.
That’s impressive! The clinical study for this “Nogo trap”, entitled “ReNetX”, starts this year. What exactly are you planning to study?
We plan to administer infusions containing AXER-204 (“Nogo trap”) to patients with chronic spinal cord injuries. We inject it directly through the lumbar spine into the spinal fluid. By doing this, our hope and aim is that the nerves surrounding the injury site rearrange and form new networks. This should improve motor functions.
Will patients feel better after this drug treatment?
That’s our goal. Firstly, we will investigate the safety and tolerability of the drug. Then, we will assess its effectiveness to improve neurological function. During experiments, we didn’t see complete recovery, but clear progress. Naturally, it’s even more complicated when humans are involved. The study participants have residual functions in their arms and hands. We do not expect them to regain the original level of functionality, but we do expect them to experience demonstrable, significant improvements.
Why do you focus on chronic patients?
It is very difficult to predict how patients will develop in the first few weeks after an injury. Some make more progress than others. We can merely guess. If the injury happened a year ago, the patient’s condition hardly ever changes. This means that we have a clearly defined group and can carry out the necessary tests more quickly. And there are many chronically injured patients who need help…
Do you think about your patients during your everyday routine in the laboratory?
Yes. I often think about the many people affected. If this drug works, it will benefit everyone suffering from a spinal cord injury. This study is designed for a specific group to obtain clear answers to our questions. If it succeeds, we can expand it.
What motivates you to keep going?
I perceive my work as a mission of sorts.
And what’s the private Stephen Strittmatter like?
My wife and I have four grown children. We have a boat and enjoy skiing. We don’t have any grand plans like a circumnavigation of the globe. We enjoy relaxing in our free time.
Do you have dreams for the future?
I hope that multiple forms of medication will improve the lives of those affected. I hope to change medical practice and develop therapies. In this respect, my professional and private dreams don’t differ much.
How do you define happiness?
What would make me very happy is to successfully translate my scientific findings into practice.
Stephen Strittmatter is the director of Yale University’s Department of Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration, and Neuroregeneration. His research focuses on the re-proliferation of damaged nerves. The company “ReNetX Bio” is a spin-off of Strittmatter’s work. Wings for Life has pledged 7 million dollars to the American researcher’s project - the biggest financial contribution to date.