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    Christopher Reeve Foundation


    Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Miami, FL
    V. Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D., University of California Los Angeles, CA
    James W. Fawcett, Ph.D., University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
    Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., The Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA
    Lorne M. Mendell, Ph.D., State University of New York Stony Brook, NY
    Luis F. Parada, Ph.D., UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX
    Martin E. Schwab, Ph.D., University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland


    The mission of the CRF International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury is to promote structural repair and functional recovery in the acutely and chronically injured spinal cord. The Consortium pursues this mission through collaborative research that focuses on how to optimize the intrinsic capacity of the adult nervous system to repair and remodel itself as well as how to elicit robust regenerative responses after injury. Consortium projects are organized around these four themes:
     Tissue Repair
     Activators and Enhancers of Regeneration and Neural Function
     Inhibitors of Growth
     Physical Therapy and Training
    Consortium members believe that these are the most critical elements of spinal cord repair. If scientists could integrate them into carefully orchestrated therapies, then recovery of mobility, function, and independence would be maximized.


    Throughout history, paralysis has been the paradigm of a severe human handicap. Ancient Egyptian priests correctly diagnosed spinal cord injuries as untreatable. Even the survival of severely injured patients was problematic until the mid-1900s when doctors developed a comprehensive approach to these catastrophic traumas. From then on, however, improved rehabilitation of such patients translated into improved quality of life and greater personal achievement and satisfaction. Nevertheless, individuals with spinal cord injury are continually challenged by serious health problems, and those who struggle with the dysfunction of severe high cervical lesions are in particular jeopardy. Those factors, combined with the almost incalculable economic and societal consequences of spinal cord injury, create a strong appeal to the medical research community to develop treatments to help these patients.
    Historically, efforts to improve recovery and functional outcome after a spinal cord injury remained slow and frustrating. Indeed, for almost a century, the field was overshadowed by the dogma that axons in the adult brain and spinal cord could not grow, or regrow, over distances of more than a millimeter. The first milestone experiments were done on rats and published in the early 1980s. They showed that many types of central neurons could regrow their axons over several centimeters into segments of nerves that had been transplanted from the peripheral nervous system. In the late 1980s, researchers pinpointed the crucial difference between the peripheral and central nervous systems. They found that in the brain and spinal cord, oligodendrocytes, along with the protective coating of myelin that these cells produce, harbored proteins that stopped regenerating axons in their tracks. When researchers managed to counteract these powerful proteins in rats with complete spinal cord injuries, axons regenerated over long distances. Laboratories began experimenting with therapies to block oligodendrocyte development and myelin formation. Another approach involved applying a monoclonal antibody (IN-1) to neutralize one potent inhibitory protein called Nogo-A.
    These findings created excitement in a field that had long been regarded as hopeless. The number of people involved in spinal cord research and support for their work increased in the early 1990s. In 1995, The American Paralysis Association, later the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, and now the Christopher Reeve Foundation (CRF), reacted to these developments by inviting eight world-class researchers to form an interdisciplinary spinal cord consortium. Also in 1995, Christopher Reeve suffered a severe spinal cord injury when he was thrown from his horse. Publicity about his accident, the extent of his paralysis, and his many public appearances since the accident gave the world an intimate look at this devastating condition. His tireless efforts, combined with indisputable scientific progress, helped to catapult spinal cord research into the mainstream of neuroscience.

    It became clear that no single discovery would cure a spinal cord injury but that treatment necessarily would be multi-phased and interdisciplinary, starting as soon as possible after an injury and continuing through rehabilitation. What follows is an explanation of the major challenges that emerged in the 1990s and the most recent developments in each one. Members of the Consortium have made pioneering contributions to many of these research arenas.

    1990s: Scientists began to treat animal models with neurotrophins that spur axon growth and other substances that suppress the inhibitors of that growth. The results were surprising and encouraging. Of particular importance was the observation that when axon regeneration was enhanced, it often brought partial recovery of function without negative side effects. The adult spinal cord, it seemed, could handle interventions that induced axonal growth - without being reduced to a state of chaos.

    Today: Many laboratories are trying to stop the area around a spinal cord injury from turning inhospitable to regenerating axons. Without treatment, that environment contains inhibitory molecules that cause an elongating axon to pull back. In efforts to counteract this retreat response, researchers are testing, in both tissue culture and animal models, antibodies against one powerful inhibitory molecule called Nogo. These antibodies have been “humanized” to pave the way for an upcoming clinical trial. Another strategy for modifying the pullback response is to interfere with the signaling molecules that tell the axon to retract when it encounters Nogo or other inhibitory molecules. These signaling pathways may be interrupted at a number of points, and many laboratories are testing various blocking molecules to see if they will enable injured nerve fibers to grow.

    1990s: Scientists began to notice that treatments that promoted axon regeneration also enhanced the compensatory growth of non-injured, surviving nerve circuitry. For example, Nogo antibodies also induced a growth response called sprouting in spared nerve cells, which complemented regeneration and promised to aid in rebuilding a damaged network.

    Today: Compensatory mechanisms can play a particularly important role in patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries. Researchers are trying to understand how this valuable process occurs so one day sprouting might be controlled to achieve the greatest degree of recovery. Laboratories around the world are experimenting with both drug treatments and rehabilitation exercises that could enhance compensatory growth.

    1990s: Scientists had long recognized that the scar that formed at the spinal cord lesion posed both physical and chemical roadblocks to regeneration. But only during the 1990s did they achieve an understanding of the scarring process on a molecular level. With this knowledge, researchers began trying to reduce scarring or, alternatively, to decrease the influence of scar tissue on regeneration.

    Today: Scar cells not only accumulate to create an impenetrable barrier but also they secrete a variety of inhibitory molecules into the spaces around them. One such molecule, proteoglycan, is a large one that fills areas outside the cells. Researchers are testing enzymes that would prevent the formation of or reduction in proteoglycan molecules. These efforts have achieved some success in enabling nerve fibers to cross the scar; but understanding the cell signaling that occurs as growing nerve fibers encounter proteoglycans remains an important research area. Promising results from experiments directed at controlling scarring are being incorporated into combination treatments in animal studies.

    1990s: The destructive ripple effect that begins immediately after injury destroys additional spinal cord tissue and often leaves cysts and an expanding cavity. Axons have trouble spanning that gap because they need a solid base on which to grow. Researchers began to test materials that might act as a bridge to help repair the spinal cord. Following many unsuccessful attempts, Schwann cells, which produce the protective myelin coating around axons in the peripheral nervous system, and olfactory ensheathing glia, nerve fiber growth-enhancing cells from the nasal cavity were discovered to be effective bridging materials.

    Today: Investigators are testing both transplanted cells as well as synthetic polymers to bridge breaks in the spinal cord and to support and nourish new axons. Another focus is how to lure growing fibers off the bridges and into the surviving cord, where they would continue to extend. Many laboratories are combining cellular or synthetic bridges with other interventions, such as the growth factors that “fertilize” regenerating axons and substances that modify intracellular signaling pathways. These additions are better than the bridge alone.

    1990s: Scientists started to transplant cells into an injury to rebuild damaged nerve circuitry. The most likely recruits for replacement cells were various types of stem cells, primitive cells that evolve into more specialized ones. The hope was that once stem cells were inserted into the damaged spinal cord, they would migrate to where they were needed and evolve into the missing cell types. For example, if transplanted stem cells became oligodendrocytes, then they could remyelinate spared nerve fibers that had lost their myelin in the injury as well as myelinate regenerated nerve fibers.
    Today: Interest in stem cells has only grown, both in scientific and political arenas. Scientists are focusing on what appears to be the best type of stem cells to use in spinal repair: neural progenitor cells that are already committed to becoming part of the central nervous system. The challenge is to ensure that these progenitors spin off exactly the type of cells needed to rebuild the spinal cord and nothing else. Neurobiologists are perfecting techniques for propagating stem cells and prodding them to become functioning neurons. Another approach involves the harnessing of neural progenitor cells that apparently survive in a dormant state throughout life in the spinal cord. If scientists could awaken and control these cells, they could serve as a built-in repair kit for the nervous system. Researchers are also eyeing cells from bone marrow as candidates for repairing the spinal cord.

    1990s: During the decade, researchers began to appreciate that physical therapy not only improved the quality of life of people with spinal cord injuries but also was a valuable treatment modality. European, American, and Canadian researchers began reporting that studies in cats, rats, and finally humans showed that vigorous, repetitive, and carefully structured stepping routines could help the body to make useful adaptations to the disruptions in spinal circuitry. To the surprise of many, the lower spinal cord below the area of the lesion could actually "learn" to control standing and stepping - without input from the brain. The training appeared to have value even in animals whose cords were completely transected. Scientists also documented that exercise heightened the secretion of growth factors that foster the survival and function of nerve cells as well as promoting axon growth.

    Today: As a growing number of human studies are reinforcing previous findings in animals, vigorous exercise routines quickly are becoming a standard part of rehabilitation regimens. Researchers are probing the cellular and molecular mechanisms that mediate training effects in the lesioned spinal cord and brain. This information should enable investigators to devise the most effective exercise routines and to see how training might be combined with future pharmacological interventions to improve functional recovery.

    1990s: Scientists began to study how the brain and spinal cord formed in the first place. They suspected that the process might provide a model - or at least clues - for rebuilding the injured cord. Researchers focused on the developing spinal cord during embryonic stages to identify molecules that guided or impeded growth. The rat was the primary experimental animal.
    Today: The mouse is becoming more and more popular as an experimental model. Because its genetic background now is known, strains of mice can be bred that are missing specific genes. These mutant mice then enable scientists to explore the functions of certain molecules, both during development and after a spinal cord injury. A valuable adjunct to animal studies are so called in-vitro studies in which nerve tissue is grown in a culture dish, where experimental conditions may be better controlled and mechanisms underlying tissue responses may be more easily revealed. Another sophisticated time saving technique is called microarray technology. It enables researchers to study thousands of genes at a time to see how their activity changes, both after an injury and after experimental treatments to repair the cord. CRF’s Microarray Core opened in 2000 so that the Consortium laboratories could have access to this important new tool.

    Clearly this is an exciting, productive time for the field of spinal cord repair. Progress in understanding the cellular and molecular underpinnings of the normal and injured spinal cord has stirred enormous interest among neuroscientists around the world. Although highly complex questions remain and breakthroughs are difficult to achieve, the research and medical communities now believe that treatments are on the horizon for spinal cord injuries. Many exciting studies focus on the acute injury, but scientists are mindful that new information gleaned from these experiments should also be applied to work on chronic injuries in order to aid people with older injuries.


    Having recognized that no one laboratory had the breadth to tackle the complex challenge of restoring function to the damaged spinal cord, CRF organized the Consortium in 1995. Its activities have focused on four main themes that cover most of the areas of research on spinal cord injuries that were explained in previous sections:
     Tissue Repair
     Activators and Enhancers of Regeneration and Neural Function
     Inhibitors of Growth
     Physical Therapy and Training
    The techniques used by the seven laboratories that currently comprise the Consortium include genetics, molecular biology, immunocyto-chemistry, cell transplantation, neuroanatomy, electrophysiology, behavioral analysis, and kinesiology. The skills and resources of the member laboratories are supplemented by four core facilities: the Injury Core at UC-Irvine (Aileen J. Anderson, Ph.D., Scientific Director), the Microarray and Vector Cores at the Salk Institute, headed by Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., and the Behavior Core at UCLA, headed by V. Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D.
    The Consortium has:
     Created an intellectual and technical environment in which researchers achieve a high level of trust, openness, and collaborative interactions marked by dynamic, interactive intellectual and scientific relationships between the member laboratories.
     Achieved a more holistic, integrative, interdisciplinary approach to the multi-dimensional problem of acute and chronic injury through collaboration among individuals representing a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives.
     Fostered inter-laboratory experiments. Many of these collaborative experiments have led to publications, which are listed on the Publication page of this section.
     Trained Research Associates who are encouraged to collaborate either with Associates at one other laboratory or in larger projects that often take place at a Core. Associates do much of the hands-on bench work involved in Consortium experiments.
     Held semi-annual, three-day meetings with all the Principal Investigators, Associates, and members of the Consortium Advisory Panel (CAP). Some 25 to 30 people attend and exchange research results and plan new experiments and initiatives. Workshops and lectures that feature outside experts keep Consortium members informed of relevant new issues and technologies.
     Utilized the cutting-edge Core laboratories and their skilled personnel to stimulate and support collaborative activity and to enable Consortium members to undertake complex joint experiments.
     Sponsored activities for the benefit of the entire spinal cord injury community. Examples are publication of a major review in Scientific American, development of a new locomotor rating scale for mice with SCI, and publication of a study of the changes in gene expression at the site of, as well as above and below, a moderate contusion injury in rats. These are discussed in more detail below.

    From its inception, a fundamental and driving goal of the Consortium was the training of Associates. By design, the Associates have been the foot soldiers of the Consortium, carrying out the “orders” from the Principal Investigators - their theoretical discussions and experimental designs - in the trenches of day-to-day bench science. CRF, the Consortium Principal Investigators, and their advisors have invested substantial time and effort, into creating a specialized training environment for this cadre of young scientists, who will bear the torch of spinal cord injury research into the future. There is a keen sense of pride and accomplishment in watching as the first Associates have become mature, independent scientists who have remained focused on spinal cord research. They truly are meeting the highest expectations of their Consortium mentors. However, of equal importance to their eventual contributions, has been the past and current interactions among and between them. Their relationships - they extend now beyond the Consortium - have benefitted both the Associates and the Principal Investigators and disseminated technology throughout the Consortium laboratories.


    The Consortium focuses on four themes which span the research expertise of its Principal Investigators, and which are described below.

    A spinal cord injury destroys tissue, interrupting the connections between the brain and spinal cord. When the injury is due to contusion, as is common in humans, a long-lasting cavity develops in the spinal cord. How can this breach be repaired and function be restored? First, axons could regrow to span the cavity and restore the transmission of messages across the injury site. Or, second, the body could be helped to make better use of the small number of undamaged nerve fibers that survive in two-thirds of spinal injuries. These fibers can remodel and adapt to the injury, a process called plasticity. Or replacement cells either could be transplanted into the lesion or sent from other parts of the body to repair the spinal cord. Consortium researchers are exploring all three of these approaches, alone and in combination.
    Axons may not be able to regrow across spinal injury cavities without a bridge to carry them. Bridges can be constructed from two types of myelin-producing cells: Schwann cells from the peripheral nervous system and olfactory ensheathing cells from the nasal passages. Myelin is a crucial insulation that enwraps axons and helps them function properly. Schwann cells can be obtained easily from a piece of a patient’s peripheral nerve, multiplied in the laboratory to provide enough cells for a bridge, and then transplanted into the injury site. Because no foreign cells would be involved, immune rejection is avoided. Olfactory ensheathing cells are promising as well because they integrate better into spinal cord tissue than Schwann cells do. However, they are harder to harvest and more difficult to multiply.
    Mary Bunge, Ph.D. has been focusing on Schwann cell bridges. Her laboratory will continue to test combination strategies that include Schwann cell transplantation and the elevation of a messenger molecule called cAMP that helps axons to cross inhibitory environments and grow into the surviving spinal cord. This combination is the most promising therapy to be discovered in her laboratory.
    Dr. Bunge is collaborating with the Edgerton laboratory to explore the addition of rehabilitation training to her cAMP/Schwann cell transplantation intervention, and she is also working closely with the laboratory of James W. Fawcett, Ph.D., at the Cambridge University Center for Brain Repair. They are studying how best to prod regenerating nerve fibers to exit the Schwann cell bridge and to grow to appropriate areas of the spinal cord. The Bunge and Fawcett laboratories are investigating whether placing appropriate receptors on the tips of regenerating axons might enable them to shoulder through the inhibitory extracellular matrix.
    The Fawcett laboratory is focusing on several molecules in the extracellular matrix of the spinal cord that prevent axon regeneration, particularly chondroitin sulphate proteoglycans (CSPGs) and tenascins. CSPGs are in the scar that forms after injury, and tenascins hold CSPGs in the extracellular matrix. CSPGs and tenascins also influence plasticity. Until the age of five, humans have high levels of plasticity in their nervous system, allowing their nerve circuitry to reorganize to compensate for injury. But then most of this plasticity ends. The same molecules that block nerve fiber growth are also involved in turning off plasticity; in fact, antibodies to growth inhibitors have been shown to reactivate plasticity. The Fawcett team is studying the sugar chains that provide CSPGs with much of their inhibitory power, searching for enzymes that can be blocked to weaken these structures. Dr. Fawcett is also working with the Mendell Laboratory on the mechanisms of plasticity in the spinal cord and with the Viral Vector Core to develop ways to undercut the proteoglycan sugar chains.
    Another strategy for tissue repair is to use replacement cells to fill in gaps in the spinal cord. Stem cells may one day fulfill this role. They can be obtained from several sources, but the most promising are taken from patients themselves and so would not subject to immune rejection. These cells have the potential to replace all the lost tissue of the spinal cord, but major technical challenges lie ahead before they are ready for practical use. One tantalizing tack Dr. Gage is pursuing is the recruitment of stem cells that already exist in nerve tissue. He would increase their number and send them to the places that need repair. Stem cells extracted from bone marrow and other sites also may have some ability to repair spinal cord damage. Understanding how best to steer stem cells toward injuries and learning to control their destinies are major challenges of modern biology.

    During embryonic development, neurons are born, migrate to their designated posts in the nervous system, and then extend axons and dendrites in order to assemble the appropriate circuits. These incremental steps are required in order for a neuron to function properly in the body’s communication system. An injury to the spinal cord destroys neurons and other cells, damages axons, and profoundly disrupts the connections between the brain and the spinal cord and between the spinal cord and muscles and organs below the injury on the other. A fundamental hypothesis in the field of spinal cord repair is that the developmental program that built the brain and spinal cord in the first place will have to be restarted to recreate the missing parts.
    Several families of molecules have been identified as key actors in neural development. Among the best understood are neurotrophic and neurotropic factors as well as the neurotransmitter systems. These substances are critical for the active proliferation, migration, and survival and differentiation of neurons and the glial cells that support them. In addition to exploiting those factors, a successful spinal cord repair strategy would also provide a supportive substrate and favorable environment for growth as well as suppress the molecules that block regeneration. Also essential, in the view of Dr. Gage and others, is to reboot the programs of regeneration that are thought to be intrinsic to damaged cells. No one knows whether precisely the same activators that were critical for development will be essential for regenerative responses after a spinal cord injury. However, much of the detailed knowledge of molecules and their receptors that relates to spinal regeneration has come from research on basic neural development. This has led to a deeper understanding of certain intracellular signaling pathways - Erks, for example - which represent additional and perhaps more focused targets to inducing regeneration after injury. Both independently and through collaborations, members of the Consortium have demonstrated that these so-called enhancers and activators can participate in repair following damage to the central nervous system.
    The Gage and Mendell laboratories are focusing on the delivery of enhancer molecules to the damaged spinal in order to activate anatomical, physiological, and behavioral repair. The Gage Laboratory is using a unique method of targeting to deliver therapeutic genes with the potential to promote neuron survival and remyelination. The Gage team also plans to exploit the fact that a spinal cord injury itself triggers the expansion of a pool of progenitor cells that have the potential to become different types of cells in the spinal cord or brain. The scientists will try to induce these immature progenitor cells to become neurons or oligodendrocytes in the damaged cord by administering enhancer or activator drugs or by delivering genes that would lead to the production of substances that then could influence these cells.
    The Mendell laboratory is employing electrophysiological techniques to establish how these enhancers function. Specifically, his team is searching for the cellular mediators of any behavioral improvements that they note after administration of these agents. This effort could pinpoint cells that are crucial to behavioral recovery, and then scientists could design drugs or other approaches to maximize the beneficial effects of the identified cells and pathways. The Mendell laboratory also plans to work with other members of the Consortium who have identified potentially useful molecules that they would like to evaluate with electrophysiology. Another related hypothesis postulates that vigorous exercise works synergistically with the enhancer cells to improve function in the damaged spinal cord. Here, too, Dr. Mendell could use electrophysiological methods to pinpoint which cells and signal pathways exercise affects.

    The Schwab and Parada laboratories have a strong focus on molecules that stop regeneration after injury. Axons that extend from nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord - the central nervous system - do not regenerate after a traumatic injury. Since the early 1980s, scientists have known that a significant reason for this problem is that myelin, the fatty coating that insulates and protects axons, is a hostile environment for axon growth. Since then, many researchers have shown that spinal neurons actually can regrow their axons under more favorable conditions. Three major constituents of myelin contribute to its inhibitory nature: molecules known as Nogo-A, myelin-associated glycoprotein (MAG), and oligodendrocyte myelin glycoprotein (OMgp).
    When an antibody to Nogo-A was applied to spinal cord injured rats, researchers achieved long distance regeneration of spinal axons. MAG was isolated as a myelin component that inhibits adult sensory neurons from regrowing their axons, and MAG seems to have the same negative influence on neurons - at least in cell culture. OMgp is a complex protein that displays inhibitory powers in cell cultures that are similar to those of Nogo-A and MAG. As scientists learned more about each of these inhibitory molecules in the 1990s, they emerged as potential targets for therapies to promote regeneration. Nogo, MAG, and OMgp all interfere with axon growth, but researchers still know very little about their molecular function
    To better understand these inhibitory molecules, which is key to neutralizing their activity, scientists are taking two approaches. The first is biochemical. If Nogo, MAG, and OMgp are present in myelin and interact with growing axons to block their passage, then theoretically the axons must have receptor molecules on their growing tips that specifically recognize and interact with the inhibitory molecules. In fact, in the last three years, scientists discovered that the three myelin-based inhibitory proteins all interact with a protein on the membrane of neurons called NgR (Nogo receptor), a common receptor subunit. Given that these proteins are not genetically related, this is a surprising finding. It provides a unifying conceptual framework for inhibition and raises the hope that all three inhibitors might be attacked through a single shared pathway. Researchers’ excitement must be tempered, however, by evidence showing that additional inhibitory activities found in Nogo are probably not transmitted through the common receptor.
    Another important advance in this field came with the recent demonstration that Nogo receptor interacts with another receptor known as the p75 neurotrophin receptor. This receptor has been closely studied so considerable information and research tools can be brought to bear on its study in the context of spinal cord injury.
    The second approach to the study of these inhibitory molecules is genetic. Thanks to sophisticated genetic engineering techniques used on the mouse, researchers can now run experiments on mice that have been bred lacking either Nogo, MAG, OMgp, or p75. Several Consortium members propose collaborations using these “knockouts.” Because these molecules can possibly replace each other in terms of function, it may be necessary to neutralize all the inhibitory molecules at once to achieve an even higher level of regeneration. Scientists may also need to pursue other hypotheses, among them these:
    • Some undiscovered inhibitory activities also come into play. Indeed, developmental biologists have discovered that during formation of the nervous system, repellent forces create boundaries that limit where forming neurons can send their axons. Therefore, the surprising concept is that repulsion is an ongoing and important mechanism of nervous system development. Key molecules in this embryonic process are the ephrins. The CRF Consortium has now developed considerable evidence that these ephrin molecules constitute a significant component of myelin based inhibition.
    • Additional extracellular impediments known as glial scars also have inhibitory effects.
    • Compared to neurons in embryonic mice, neurons in adult mice may have limited outgrowth potential
    Clearly, more studies are needed to examine the full potential of the known myelin inhibitors and to identify and study others that might exist. The nature of the glial scar and its role in inhibition must be understood better and controlled. Progress in these areas will only enhance other approaches to repairing the spinal cord.

    A primary objective of the Edgerton laboratory is to understand the basic mechanisms of spinal learning, that is, how the spinal cord below the level of an injury can be trained to control muscles in the legs without input from the brain. In addition, this laboratory studies, in incomplete spinal cord injuries, how the brain and spinal cord interact as muscle function improves. Clearly, the more scientists learn about how physical therapy leads to functional improvements, the better they can design treatments. Rapidly evolving animal research on physical therapy is already supplying information on precisely how exercise promotes recovery.
    The Edgerton laboratory has mouse and rat models that can relearn how to step and to stand using robotic devices for training. The devices also enabled researchers to obtain quantitative assessment of neuromotor performance. Several key questions remain, however, including how to determine the best program of physical therapy, how patients can be matched to the best exercise programs for them, and how to guide the researchers who study spinal cord repair to incorporate exercise into their experiments and to evaluate the outcomes.
    Although researchers have traditionally used behavioral measures to assess the outcome physiotherapy experiments, the Edgerton laboratory is trying to identify the mechanisms within the spinal cord responsible for the effects of physiotherapy on improved locomotor recovery. Studies suggest that the spinal cord can develop adaptive patterns of muscle activation for stepping or standing below the level of a spinal cord injury using segmental inputs, despite the loss of many or even all connections to and from the brain. He and his colleagues will look for mechanisms by which this “learning” is occurring by studying the spinal cord tissue after physical therapy. Furthermore, by using both rat and mouse models, Dr Edgerton can compare different modes of physical activity, including step and stand training, voluntary wheel exercise, and enriched environments. An ongoing collaboration with the Mendell lab is expected to yield information concerning individual spinal pathways that are affected by the training regimes.
    Ultimately, the most successful treatments for spinal cord injuries probably will combine research from each of the major themes pursued within the Consortium. Therefore, the goal of the Edgerton laboratory is to build and refine models of physical therapy and integrate them with the treatments that promote regeneration. Eventually, people with spinal cord injuries might receive a series of coordinated treatments, including drugs to boost the activity of growth factors, a transplant of olfactory ensheathing cells, a vaccine of antibodies against growth inhibitors, and regular doses of neurotransmitters to improve the performance of their nervous system. Finding the best possible components of and timing for this multi-staged treatment can be accomplished most effectively and rapidly by a collaboration like the CRF Consortium.


    As Consortium activities multiplied, new challenges arose. For example, the common experiments involving most or all of the members grew logistically complicated and onerous for the host laboratory. It became apparent that setting up some infrastructure - centralized resources that Consortium members could share - not only made economic and scientific sense but also would improve the efficiency and the quality of the work of the Consortium. In addition, CRF recognized that these laboratories could become invaluable training centers for young scientists.
    These expectations were borne out by the first two cores: the Microarray Core and the Injury Core laboratories. The Microarray Core opened at the Salk Institute in September 2000 and the Injury Core opened at the University of California-Irvine in March 2001. The two laboratories now complement and enhance Consortium research. The Injury Core also routinely supports research and training activities for scientists with grants from the CPRF Individual Grants Program as well as for outside investigators. The Microarray Core hosts an on-line database base, accessible to all researchers, with results from the Consortium-wide study, “Spatial and temporal gene expression profiling of the contused rat spinal cord,” ExpNeurol 189 (2004), pp204-221 (
    To build on and expand the noteworthy successes of the existing cores, CRF has recently created two new, shared laboratories, a Viral Vector Core and a Behavior Core. The goals for all the Cores are:
     To facilitate collaborative experiments which involve some or all Consortium laboratories and alleviate the burden on any one laboratory to provide the personnel, resources, and space.
     To provide technical and analytical assistance to member laboratories.
     To train Consortium Associates and support their transition to independent investigators by providing them with continued access to Core expertise and activities even after they leave.
     To insure continuity within the Consortium and the integrity of collaborations and projects, particularly as some Associates cycle out and new Associates join.
     To enable the Consortium to undertake studies that might otherwise be too expensive for any individual laboratory to tackle because of the need for new equipment, staff, or other resources. This is particularly true when animal models are involved.
     To insure standardization across Consortium laboratories.
     To perfect experimental techniques and assessment tools and to develop other resources that will improve the work of the Consortium and enrich the field of spinal cord research.


    Microarray technology was a logical choice for the first CRF core laboratory. As the new millennium opened, this technology was emerging as an exciting and aggressive research tool that enabled researchers to screen thousands of genes simultaneously to see which ones were active, or expressed, and which ones were silent. Genes were arrayed on a microchip the size of a fingernail, and experiments that once took years to complete could be done in a matter of weeks. The hope was - and continues to be - that by observing the patterns of gene expression to see how they changed after a spinal cord injury, scientists might identify therapeutic targets. For example, treatments might be devised to enhance the influence of beneficial genes or minimize the power of those that prevent the spinal axons from regenerating. Researchers also hoped to learn how gene activity changes during the development of the brain and spinal cord, which might offer clues for how to restart that creative process to heal an injury. Finally, microarray technology offered a new way to evaluate potential treatments by assessing their impact on gene activity.
    Because microarray equipment was expensive and required dedicated, highly trained personnel, it made sense to create a central microarray laboratory for the Consortium. Under the direction of Fred H. Gage, Ph. D., this core opened at the Salk Institute in September 2000. It was equipped with the Affymetrix GeneChip™ system, which provides an unbiased “snapshot” of differential gene expression in many animals, including the mouse and rat, as well as humans. This approach enables biologists not only to test expected gene changes but also to look at unexpected, potentially important differences that would otherwise go undetected.
    Since its inception, member laboratories have routinely accessed the Microarry Core for myriad and experiments. They have explored a variety of questions, ranging from how various treatments affect recovery from a spinal cord injury to how endogenous cell signaling may be interfering with regeneration. The use of a single, dedicated technician has insured that CRF studies produced consistent data that is of the highest quality. In addition to its involvement in individual and inter-laboratory experiments, the CRF Microarray Core played a central role in the latest Consortium-wide experiment. That study characterized the changes in gene expression at the site of, as well as above and below, a moderate contusion injury in rats. The project involved 108 GeneChips and looked at four time points, spanning from three hours after injury to a more “chronic” state 35 days later. Analyzing the data produced a spatial and temporal profile of spinal cord injury and also identified several promising avenues for new clinical treatments. The study, “Spatial and temporal gene expression profiling of the contused rat spinal cord,” was published in ExpNeurol 189 (2004), pp204-221.
    The Core also has improved the accuracy of its microarray experiments by consulting frequently with Affymetrix personnel and upgrading its equipment. The analysis of Affymetrix data is no trivial task, and Core personnel have continued to refine this process. For instance, the laboratory developed a novel statistical method to isolate important gene changes, an accomplishment they described in the Journal of Neuroscience Methods (Aimone, J.F., Gage, F.H. 2004 135, 27-33).


    Any promising approach to treating spinal cord injuries must undergo thorough testing in animal models before it can move into human clinical trials. Yet spinal cord experiments on animals are technically challenging, labor intensive, and expensive. Among the hurdles are performing delicate, precise surgery on animals to produce a variety of standardized injury models; caring for the animals before, during, and after experiments; and producing objective measurements of the results. To make it easier, faster, and more economical for Consortium laboratories to move exciting bench research into animal experiments, CRF set up the Injury Core in March 2001.
    The Injury Core has supported more than 60 Consortium projects. Equally important, it has been an invaluable training ground. It helped to prepare new Associates as they began their assignments in Consortium laboratories and supported those Associates who moved on to establish independent careers as spinal cord investigators. Educational activities for Associates have included workshops on these topics: locomotor training in humans and animal models; new animal models of spinal cord injury; use of the BMS locomotor rating scale for mouse models, and methods of GeneChip analysis. This support has been crucial in assuring that these young researchers will maintain a spinal cord focus. Moreover, with the new skills they have acquired, they are better equipped to complete the type of preliminary studies that will enable them to win larger, more long-term grants.
    Recently, the scope of the Injury Core laboratory has expanded to include the development of resources and new knowledge for the spinal cord field. The Core has produced new behavioral measures to assess the effects of experimental treatments on animals. These tests will help to move successful animal studies into clinical trials. Also being evaluated in mouse models are a ladder beam test of functional recovery, in which mice walk over a horizontal ladder while researchers watch how many rungs the animals miss, and the use of Magnetic Resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the volume of spinal cord lesions. Moreover, in the last two years, the Core has been opened to investigators with individual CRF grants so they can test their research in animal models. And in July 2005, CRF launched a Core Pilot Data Program (LINK TO CORE PILOT PROGRAM SECTION) to give investigators the opportunity to participate in pilot studies of potential therapeutic interventions for spinal cord injury. The Core has also provided tissue samples, training, and other resources to other, non-funded scientists working in the spinal cord field.


    Gene therapy is an exciting new approach that one day could limit the secondary wave of destruction from spinal cord injuries, prevent the formation of a cavity and scar tissue at the site of a lesion, and promote the repair of damaged spinal circuits. Doctors would deliver therapeutic genes via so-called vectors, viruses that have been genetically engineered so that they can infect cells without causing illnesses. Instead, vectors deposit their genetic payloads into the nuclei of target cells, where the new genes begin to influence the production of proteins that, in turn, influence cell behavior. Scientists use different families of viral vectors, depending on the type of cell they are targeting.
    Under the direction of Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., the Vector Core laboratory is designing and manufacturing new vectors for collaborative projects in the Consortium. These vectors are non-toxic, long lasting, and able to produce sufficient amounts of the therapeutic genes to create the desired biologic changes. These vectors can be used in a variety of animals and can infect both dividing and non-dividing cells. The core can create:
    • New versions of two of the most useful) types of vectors: recombinant adeno-associated virus (rAAV) vectors and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-based lentiviral vectors.
    • New forms of rAAV and lentiviral vectors that enable scientists to adjust how much genetic material they produced after having been inserted either into tissue cultures or animals. This regulation would be accomplished by administering, say, an antibiotic either orally or by injection.
    • Vectors to manipulate gene sequences in vivo.

    A major obstacle in treating injuries and diseases in the brain and spinal cord is that many possible therapeutic substances consist of large molecules that cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier. Viral vectors can execute a kind of end run around this obstacle. That is, doctors would administer to patients viral vectors packed with genes that would spur the body to produce its own medicine precisely in the spinal cord where it is needed. The Vector Core will collaborate with other Consortium laboratories to test therapeutic genes in the injured spinal cords of animal models. These genes have the potential to:
    • Protect against cavitation
     Limit the death of motor neurons
     Spur axonal elongation
     Maintain the structural and functional integrity of the damaged cord
    The Gage laboratory is highly qualified to collaborate on these experiments. Researchers there recently discovered that when AAV vectors that express therapeutic genes are injected intramuscularly, they move efficiently from muscle to the motor neurons that link muscles with the spinal cord. The Gage team recently utilized this novel transport system to test two treatments - glial derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) and insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) - on animal models of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. Researchers found that IGF-1 prolonged life and delayed disease progression, even after overt disease symptoms were present. In addition, IGF-1 significantly slowed cell death in this disease model. Based on the positive results from these experiments, clinical trials are being designed to test this exciting gene therapy in people with ALS. This proposal seeks to translate the basic scientific discoveries made in the Gage laboratory into a new treatment for spinal cord injury.

    Animal studies of potential treatments for spinal cord injuries require increasingly specialized tools to evaluate the animals’ behavior before and after the experiment. The days of relying on visual assessments of, say, how well a rat can balance on two legs, have given way to objective, quantifiable methods that exploit cutting-edge biomedical technologies. Access to these technologies in a Core facility enables Consortium members to obtain discriminating analyses of animal models under well-controlled conditions.
    The major goals of this Core are to provide rapid, quantitative measurements of posture and locomotion in animal models of spinal cord injury and to compare the effectiveness of experimental treatments. Such measurements range from electrophysiological tests that determine how well synapses are working to robotic and video-based evaluations of the dynamics of joint movements during locomotion. These assessments can be combined with electromyographic studies that monitor electrical activity in muscle fibers in acute and chronic rodent models of spinal cord injuries.
    Directed by V. Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D., the Behavior Core is developing new ways to study motor behavior in mice, rats, and primates and improve current assessment methods. As these techniques are refined, they will be made available to all Consortium laboratories. Also, studies that include training mice or rats to step or to stand can be conducted with any Consortium member. The use of robotic devices to train animals with spinal cord injuries to step or to stand is a critical element of spinal cord research. These sophisticated devices can control the specific motor task that an animal is mastering as well as quantify how much learning has occurred. Consortium laboratories are encouraged to send personnel to participate in studies and to learn techniques related to neuromotor physiology.
    Members can utilize the Behavior Core in several ways. Consortium laboratories can administer an experimental treatment to animal models and then send them to the Core for assessment and termination within a day or two. Animals can receive an initial treatment in a Consortium laboratory and then be sent to UCLA for training. Finally, an animal study can be studied exclusively at this Core. Personnel from CRF laboratories provide most of the day-to-day care and treatment of the animals while learning the Core techniques to provide quantitative evaluations of motor behavior.


    Spinal cord researchers cannot simply move their most promising research out of the laboratory and into human clinical trials. They first must address the chasm between work that succeeded with small mammals and the potential use in humans. Obviously the differences in the size and genetics between animal models and humans need to be addressed along with issues such as the optimal dosages and most effective techniques to administer any therapy.
    To tackle these critical concerns and to accelerate the rate that the best basic science can be translated with the greatest effectiveness into clinical applications, Consortium investigators are pursuing two initiatives Both tap resources outside the network in ways that should enrich the work of all the laboratories that participate and will potentially benefit the entire field of spinal cord research.
    The first initiative is the development of a non-human primate model of spinal cord injury for motor recovery studies. This effort builds on the existing expertise and relationships of two Consortium scientists - Drs. Edgerton and Schwab - who are working closely with colleagues outside the network to develop monkey models of spinal cord injuries and techniques to evaluate how the animal’s muscles and nerves function before and after both spinal cord injuries and experimental treatments. These are not simple goals, in no small part because the animals must be trained to perform standardized tasks that enable scientists to measure precisely any changes in the animals’ behavior. Once this collaboration has perfected the current state-of-the-art primate modeling and technology, the Consortium will be able to test the best potential therapies from rodent experiments on these larger animals, which more closely resemble humans.

    The second initiative is designed to give Consortium scientists, who spend so much of their lives in laboratories, a clearer picture of the day-to-day challenges that clinicians face as they care for people with spinal cord injuries. Therapies now in development in the Consortium and elsewhere hold promise for the restoration of function after spinal cord injury. At this crucial translational stage in their research, Consortium members recognize the need for increased interaction with spinal cord clinicians. An understanding of the medical realities from both patient and clinical perspectives must inform how basic scientists think about repair after injury. This is being accomplished through dialogue with members of the CRF North American Clinical Trials Network (NACTN).
    NACTN, led by Principal Investigator Robert G. Grossman, M.D., who is also a member of the Consortium Advisory Panel, is designed to move therapies for spinal cord injury out of the laboratory and into clinical trials in a way that will provide incontrovertible evidence of their effectiveness while ensuring maximum safety to patients undergoing treatment. Charles Tator, M.D., Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Surgery at The University of Toronto and also a NACTN Principal Investigator, recently joined the Consortium Advisory Panel to further strengthen the cross-fertilization between these initiatives.
    NACTN is working closely with a similar clinical consortium of five European rehabilitation centers organized under the scientific leadership of Martin Schwab, Ph.D., University of Zurich, and Volker Dietz, M.D., Balgrist Rehabilitation Center in Zurich. Together the two groups will define the “natural history” of spinal cord injury, refine outcome measures for treatment, develop a common patient database, and analyze the most promising therapies for trials.
    The European Centers are all located at rehabilitation hospitals and receive patients from acute care hospitals. The five North American clinical research institutions are primarily neurosurgical centers at acute care hospitals with close ties to large rehabilitation hospitals. The sixth is a biostatistical center.
    Each North American Center has had extensive experience in managing large-scale clinical trials in spine and head injury with support from the National Institutes of Health (or equivalent Canadian). And both the European and North American Centers bring distinct strengths to the disciplines needed by patients with spinal cord injuries. These strengths include an expertise in:
    • Clinical evaluation and the grading of neurological deficits
    • Developing surrogate measures of the severity of injury with new modalities of MRI imaging of the spinal cord
    • Electrophysiological measurements of spinal function
    • Experimental design and statistical analysis
    NACTN sites also have considerable experience with complex experimental therapies. They have participated in trials that featured, among other interventions, the clinical use of cell implantation in the brain, the insertion of brain and spinal cord stimulators, gene therapy with viral vector injection in the brain, image-guided surgery, microsurgery, and the application of local and whole body hypothermia.
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