Two University of Kentucky Researchers Awarded Grants from Conquer Paralysis Now

Conquer Paralysis Now (CPN) has awarded two of its 12 grants to researchers at the UK Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC) through its Conquer Paralysis Now Challenge. No other institution received more than one grant.

Sasha Rabchevsky, Ph.D., received the Out of the Box Award, which provides an initial $50,000 funding for high-risk, high-potential research ideas. Rabchevsky and his lab are exploring ways to promote functional neuroprotection at the subcellular level with mitochondrial transplants following spinal cord injury.

"Mitochondria, which produce the energy to fuel vital cell functions are the powerhouses, but in the event of a spinal cord injury, they can short circuit and self-destruct, which then triggers a cascade of death in neighboring cells," said Rabchevsky. "As such, mitochondria can dictate a cell’s survival or death after injury."

"Other groups have had success with mitochondrial transplants for cardiac- and pulmonary-related injuries, where it appears that the transplanted mitochondria donate their internal energy sources to host cells at the injury site to promote healing," Rabchevsky said. "We want to apply this approach to spinal cord injury by injecting healthy mitochondria around the injury site, assessing their incorporation into host cells to promote their survival and, thus, improve functional recovery of paralyzed muscles."

Warren Alilain, Ph.D., received the Lone Star Foundation Collaboration Award, which recognizes research projects involving at least two labs in two different fields. Alilain will split his $100,000 award with medicinal biochemist Samy O. Meroueh, Ph.D., of the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Alilain and Meroueh will research combination therapies to restore breathing function to patients with older cervical spinal cord injuries, homing in on the urokinase system, which plays a critical role in the processes that lead to recovery of diaphragmatic activity post-SCI.

"More than half of all spinal cord injuries are at the cervical level and can potentially result in the inability to breathe which makes those injured dependent on mechanical ventilation and specialized health care that severely diminishes their quality of life," said Alilain. "While most experimental investigations to promote respiratory motor recovery have been in the immediate, acute stages of injury and with some promising results, we want to focus on the larger SCI population who are chronically injured, to see whether our therapies can promote neural plasticity and improve breathing function."

The CPN Challenge was launched to find a cure for paralysis by driving the development of treatments for spinal cord injuries to help patients regain such everyday functions as standing, reaching and grasping, and bowel and bladder control. Grant recipients were selected from a pool of 100 applicants representing 80 institutions and more than 25 countries.

"With many novel ideas never getting off the ground due to a lack of initial data needed to win traditional research grants, CPN seeks to support researchers for their unconventional, disruptive approaches," said Ida Cahill, president and chief executive officer of Conquer Paralysis Now.

The CPN Challenge program, developed in conjunction with a world-renowned team of researchers and scientists and divided into three stages of increasing difficulty, will potentially award nearly $20 million in grants and prizes over the next 10 years to teams that can reach unprecedented improvement in the everyday functions of people living with chronic spinal cord injury.

SCoBIRC director, Dr. Jim Geddes, noted that having not one but two researchers from the University of Kentucky receive CPN grants was a reflection of the institution's innovative approaches to spinal cord and traumatic brain injury treatment.

"SCoBIRC likes to think boldly about ways to improve the lives of people with spinal cord and brain injury, and having an organization like CPN acknowledge that thinking with not one, but two grants, is a testament to the quality of our work," said Geddes. "We are grateful to organizations like CPN who underwrite projects that have terrific potential but are a greater financial risk."

The Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center at the University of Kentucky was established in 1999 to promote both individual and collaborative studies on injuries to the spinal cord and brain that result in paralysis or other loss of neurologic function.