Assistant professor of biology and TIRR Foundation fellow Dr. Jennifer Dulin ’05 has spent the last 15 years researching potential treatments for devastating spinal cord injuries. “These injuries are terrible events for anyone who experiences them,” she said. “They can cause lifelong paralysis, pain and various organ dysfunctions. And there are basically no treatment options.” However, with funding from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, the Paralyzed Veterans of America Research Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Dulin’s laboratory is testing the viability of a potentially life-changing approach.
In a 2022 study, she and her team took neural progenitor cells (NPCs) from mouse embryos and transplanted them into mature mice with spinal cord injuries. NPCs are comparable to stem cells, generating neurons and other cells that can improve motor function. The image below is a cross-section of an injured mouse’s spinal cord with the grafted NPCs dyed a bright green to track their proliferation through the damaged tissue. The laboratory’s study demonstrated that female mice rejected transplants from male donors, which could affect future human clinical trials.
“The idea is that one day, we could take cells from a paralyzed patient’s skin, ‘reprogram’ them into NPCs or neural stem cells in a petri dish, and then use them to restore voluntary motor function,” Dulin explained. There’s still more research to undertake before the treatment becomes viable for humans, but each study brings her team one step closer to understanding the depths of the nervous system. “I see neuroscience as biology’s final frontier. We’ve learned a lot about the heart and other major organs, but we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding the brain. This is a truly exciting time for the field.”