In Australia, many victims of spinal cord injury are young men whose lives are changed in an instant, and Western Australia - with its love of cars, sport and the great outdoors - has twice as many cases as other Australian states.
Neuroscientist Professor Giles Plant, whose research on spinal cord regeneration at The University of Western Australia led to him setting up a Stanford University research centre, is back in town to share with fellow researchers exciting developments being pursued at his US centre. The novel techniques being tested have the potential to improve outcomes for wheelchair-bound victims of spinal cord injury.
Dr Giles Plant, who completed a PhD at UWA, is Director of the Stanford Partnership for Spinal Cord Injury and Repair. He said being offered the challenge of establishing the centre in 2010 was both an accolade for the work he had been doing at UWA and an opportunity to join what is arguably the best neuroscience faculty in the US.
While spinal cord regeneration remains elusive, Dr Plant said there had been huge advances since he began his PhD research at UWA. One of the most exciting lines of research his centre was pursuing involved new techniques using adult stem cells.
"At our centre we are using neural stem cells to improve functional movement, and because there is the potential to use the patient's own stem cells we avoid the ethical issues around embryonic stem cells," Dr Plant said.
"In our model we are able to get neurons transplanted into the spinal cord to synapse and form electrical connections with other neurons to achieve functional movement. We are able to see the stem cells integrating and providing regrowth, and we're able to see functional benefits in movement in animals used in testing. We've never seen this before, so it is really promising - but we are at an early stage and it is slow, methodical work.
"What is promising is there are techniques now being studied that will allow us to get better outcomes for those with spinal injuries. At present this particular line of research is only being done in Stanford - that's why I've come to Perth to tell my colleagues about it.
"I'm here to open a door and to ask, why not try this?"
Dr Plant has returned to Perth briefly to deliver lectures in the Raine Visiting Professor Lecture Series, supported by the Raine Medical Research Foundation. His lecture on Tuesday 24 February will be in Room G24 at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research at QEII Medical Centre. All are welcome. The lecture is hosted by the Western Australian Neuroscience Research Institute and the Centre for Cell Therapy and Regenerative Medicine.
Dr Giles Plant (Adjunct Senior Lecturer, School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology) (+61 8) 6488 8642 / (+61 4) 00 731 626
Lyn Ellis (Raine Medical Research Foundation) (+61 8) 9386 9880
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716