Translational research on spinal cord injury receives $48-million award from DARPA

Canadian researchers are a core part of an international consortium of universities, startups and nonprofit organizations that has received a $48-million, 5-year grant from DARPA focused on improving paralysis in patients who have suffered acute spinal cord injury. Dr. Brian Kwon, MD, a spine surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital, Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Injury and professor of Orthopaedics at the University of British Columbia, is leading the Canadian team.

“The award is remarkable for the breadth of approaches and expertise that it brings together,” said Dr. José Zariffa (PhD), a scientist in the Neural Engineering and Therapeutics team at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, University Health Network. “International collaborations are key to successfully translating innovative approaches to the clinic and improving outcomes after spinal cord injury, and this award reflects a long history of Canadian contributions in this area.”

The funding, announced October 1, is part of DARPA’s Bridge the Gap Plus program to address major health consequences of spinal cord injury in wounded soldiers, such as paralysis as well as respiratory and cardiovascular complications. In Canada, there are more than 85,000 people living with spinal cord injuries, about half of whom sustained an SCI as a result of a motor vehicle accident or other serious trauma.

Bridge the Gap is focused on developing integrated technologies that stabilize injuries, regenerate cells, restore function, and ultimately improve treatment of spinal cord injuries. Ensuring adequate blood supply to the site of injury is one of the only treatments that may improve function, therefore a major focus of the DARPA program is developing technologies to monitor and stabilize a patient’s blood flow, pressure and oxygenation levels within days of injury.

Dr. Kwon and his collaborators will test an implantable near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) device that uses light to measure those vital signs in patients in real time, providing clinicians with a tool to guide their treatment decisions. The researchers will pair the NIRS device with an electrical spinal stimulator that can influence blood pressure. If blood supply to the injury site can be quickly stabilized, they will also deliver neuronal stem cells using personalized 3D printed scaffolds, with the aim of regenerating lost connections in the spinal cord and, ultimately, restoring some function.

One of the Canadian partners on the grant is Vancouver-based Panthonix Technologies, which specializes in NIRS technology and its application in biomedical and clinical research and sports monitoring. The company was part of the Hatch Accelerator for technology startups at Entreneurship@UBC.

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research supported earlier research by Dr. Kwon into the commercialization of the NIRS technology for use in patients with spinal cord injuries.

“Never before has an agency committed funding of this magnitude for spinal cord injury and set such a high bar for not just incremental, but truly transformative solutions,” said Dr. Kwon in a press release.