Foundation Boosts Studies of Spinal Cord Regeneration

June 20, 2003

            A scientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center has been awarded a three-year grant of $120,000 by the Alexandrine and Alexander L. Sinsheimer Foundation to help continue his studies of the nervous system.

            Roman Giger, assistant professor of Neurology and a scientist in the Center for Aging and Developmental Biology, will put the funds toward his basic research on the brain and spinal cord.  His study of neurons – cells of the nervous system – suggests a new path for researchers to consider as they try to develop ways to treat patients with spinal cord injuries.

            Giger studies how neurons connect with each other in a pattern so extensive that the wiring of a person’s nervous system is thousands of times more complex than the most detailed map of Manhattan’s streets. Every one of the billions of neurons in the brain can connect to thousands of other neurons, somehow deciding which neurons to connect to, when, and why. Some neurons even grow several feet long as they link parts of the brain with distant parts of the body.

            “It’s long been a mystery how all this wiring occurs,” says Giger. “It’s almost overwhelming. In the laboratory, each answer opens up another question, or several more questions.”

            His laboratory is trying to unravel the process. As a postdoctoral fellow Giger worked with one of the scientists who discovered axon guidance molecules, proteins which specialize in directing neurons where to grow, planning the brain’s wiring much like civil engineers lay out new roads. Some scientists think the abundance of these molecules in humans may account for the sophistication of our brain compared to a fruit fly or worm, organisms which have feeble brain structures despite having thousands of genes.

            Giger and others are exploring what role the molecules play in people with spinal cord injuries. The spinal cord is a bundle of hundreds of thousands of very thin nerves packed together, with the composition of toothpaste or jelly.  The supple and vulnerable cord is surrounded by the protective bony spinal column; when a person breaks his or her back or spinal column, sharp shards of bone often cut through the cord, resulting in permanent paralysis. Currently there is no way for the spinal cord to regenerate once it’s been cut.

            Giger is studying why the neurons aren’t able to establish new connections. He and others have found that axon guidance molecules that specialize in stopping neuronal growth gather at the injury site and likely play a role in preventing the spinal cord from growing back. If those molecules could be blocked or suppressed, it would remove one roadblock to spinal cord regeneration.

            Before coming to Rochester last year as part of the Medical Center’s strategic plan to revitalize research, Giger earned his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Zurich and did research at the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research and at Johns Hopkins University. His research at the Center for Aging and Developmental Biology has also attracted funding from the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Program, the Ellison Medical Foundation, and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. The Sinsheimer Fund supports scientific research geared at preventing or curing human disease.

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