Regenerative Impact

Reprinted from PN August 2012

Trials to help regenerate nerve fibers in spinal-cord injury are among therapies presented at syposium.

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Promising trials to help regenerate nerve fibers in spinal-cord injuries (SCI) and a peripheral nerve interface were among the topics discussed at a symposium earlier this year in Bethesda, Md.

Regenerative Medicine and the Impact on Rehabilitation was the theme for the first 2012 installment of the State of the Science Symposium, held May 11 at Memorial Auditorium in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and clinicians of all types, including military and civilian, were on hand to present and listen to some of the latest news in regenerative medicine.

Cell Transplants

Col. Paul F. Pasquina, MD, introduces Edward Wright Jr., PhD, who discussed "Novel Approaches in Bone Regeneration."

One project showing potential in helping people with SCI and close to start initial human testing involves Schwann cells.

Damien D. Pearse, PhD, of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami (Fla.), spoke about the trial involving these cells. Schwann cells form the myelin sheath of the body’s nerve fibers. Myelin allows signals to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. If myelin is damaged, the signals slow down.

Initial testing appears to show that Schwann cells implanted into a rat’s injured spinal cord may help to regenerate nerve fibers. Pearse says their studies found improved walking ability and enhanced upper-body strength in rats.

Pearse says they are hoping to soon get started with Phase I clinical trials involving eight people. This first phase of testing will help determine possible adverse health effects.

Nerve Interfaces

One study is looking to provide help to injured nerves electronically.

Gregory A. Clark, PhD, of the University of Utah’s Department of Bioengineering, spoke about his research group’s work with the Utah Slanted Electrode Array, a peripheral nerve interface. The array is an electrode array that stimulates the residual nerves of amputated and paralyzed limbs.

Clark notes his group is working to restore nerve function rather than repair it.

The array has been tested in primates and has successfully performed hand-grasping operations. However, the tiny wires required to operate the implanted array don’t hold up well in the body, so wireless array testing is ongoing.

The Brain

Another presentation also touched on the idea of electronics helping people with SCI.

Jennifer M. Collinger, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, spoke about brain-machine interfaces (BMI). Collinger described the recent success of a project that allows a research subject to move a robotic hand.

Collinger believes we’re at a point where long-term studies in people with disabilities can begin. However, she notes that translation to a clinical product requires additional technological development and clinical data to support safety and efficacy of BMI systems.


Some of the other presentations looked at the idea of regrowing or transplanting areas of the body such as bone and nerve segments.

“Novel Approaches in Bone Regeneration” was given by Edward Wright Jr., PhD, assistant professor of surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Thomas Smith, PhD, professor of orthopedics at Wake Forest University, discussed options for peripheral nerve segment defect repairs, through regrowth or by grafting.

Restoring facial features and lost tissue was the subject of a presentation from J. Peter Rubin, MD, chief of the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.

Rubin discussed fat-tissue transplantation, not just for replacing facial soft tissue to restore facial features but also for using adipose (fat-derived) stem cells to regenerate lost tissue.

The final presentation of the day was “Brain Regenerative Initiatives.”
It was given by Regina C. Armstrong, PhD, from the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She discussed using neuroregeneration for healing traumatic brain injury.

Presentations, videos, photos, and faculty biographies of this symposium and previous symposia are at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories website at

 Three more symposia are planned for 2012. For more information, call 412-822-3665 or visit  


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