Driven by curiosity, inspired by creativity

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After an injury, LCN2 levels increase and this causes a lot of problems in the spinal cord including excessive neuroinflammation and neuron cell death. After diminishing the side effects of LCN2, the team then want to transplant induced neural stem cells (iNSCs) to promote the growth of healthy cells like astrocytes so that the spinal cord can regenerate. 

We went to visit Stefano with his two of his students benefiting from Wings for Life funding – Alice Braga and Jayden Smith. We asked them all a few questions about their work and hopes for the future.  

What motivates you to gets out of bed and come to work every morning? 

Stefano: I have two levels of motivation. I have always wanted to be part of a system where I could play a major role in discovering something which will really change people’s lives. I’m a practicing Consultant in Neurology and the part of my job which is most frustrating is not being able to provide my patients with something concrete that affects the nature of their disease and changes their lives. My second motivation is driven by curiosity and inspired by the freedom and creativity provided by research. We have been given a unique opportunity to develop novel solutions for complex problems which have the potential to change this field of research.

Jayden: “It’s the prospect of finding something new – following through with an idea and finding out that you’re right. Big discoveries don’t happen that often but when they do it’s made even better because it took so long to get there!”

How does it feel to be here in Cambridge working at such an eminent institution?

Stefano: The funny thing is you forget how unique this place is – it’s not everywhere that you go into Starbucks and find a Nobel Prize winner proof-reading their next Nature article - but that’s Cambridge! It’s usually friends and family who realise how unique it is and they admire us for working in such a prestigious place. But we are here to do our job no matter where we are. Research has no flag associated with it and our contribution has international relevance.” 

Alice: “Of course on a day-to-day basis this is a lab but as a PhD student it’s actually really exciting – being at Cambridge has opened up my possibilities to learn.”

Why choose this area of research specifically and why work on spinal cord injury?

Jayden: I started my career in a very different area – I was an inorganic chemist. But I found myself getting into a small niche and I never saw any real world outcomes from what I was studying. So I turned to Stefano for a chance to do something with real world applications which might make a difference.

Stefano: As I said before, I want to play a role in changing people’s lives and I think that with smart technologies and innovation we can do that. And of course, I love stem cells – I have been working with them since my career began. It’s so exciting to see the potential of small particles which can be handmade and functionalized in a way which is patient-specific.”

What is your vision for the treatment options which will be available for people with spinal cord injury one day?

Jayden: There is slow and steady progress in various areas but I think in a couple of decades it will be a combination of approaches and treatments available.” 

Stefano: We believe in combination therapies. We already know that rehabilitation works well and that electrical-stimulation has promising yet transient effects. In order to improve these outcomes further it is plausible that we will have to combine other interventions like stem cells or other devices like the exo-skeletons or smart implantable medical devices. Either way, traumatic injuries are the perfect example of diseases which need to be treated with a personalised approach. Standard medication is unlikely to create the desired outcome due to the high diversity and heterogeneity in the type of damage which occurs, as well as other individual factors too.”