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Spinal Research: revolutionising spinal injury care

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UK charity Spinal Research has made top level changes as ground breaking research and treatments bring its vision of curing paralysis and improving spinal injury care closer.

Spinal Research, which funds UK and international research into function restoring treatments for paralysis following a spinal cord injury, has created a new senior role of Chief Vision Officer.

The move reflects the growing number of promising developments in the field of spinal cord repair and restoration that need support and translation.

Spinal Research’s new Chief Vision Officer will have responsibility for ensuring the most promising research and developments are being invested in and that the charity continues to foster collaboration and cooperation with its international partners and the research community.

This major role will be taken by current Spinal Research Chief Executive Harvey Sihota, who as a T12 paraplegic himself is passionate about the charity’s vision of curing paralysis. He will work closely with Louisa McGinn, previous Director of Fundraising, who has been appointed Spinal Research Chief Executive.

Sihota speaks to NR Times about the organisation’s aims to revolutionise spinal injury care across the UK.

Can you tell us about Spinal Research and your new role as CVO?

Spinal Research has a clear vision to cure paralysis caused by spinal cord injury. As we know today, there is no cure for spinal cord injury.

We have been at the forefront of all of the activity over the decades in various forms. I would say that we’re one of the first to take on what is essentially one of the most difficult things to do from a medical perspective, which is to repair the spinal cord and restore function.

I have been involved with the charity for over 10 years. I got injured back in 2009 and became a full time wheelchair user as a result of the spinal cord injury that I sustained.

I became very interested and curious about the field of research, such as what is technology going to potentially change my future outcomes? I started to learn a bit more about the field, what the barriers were and what was needed. When the opportunity then came along to join Spinal Research in 2020 as the CEO, I threw my hat in there and I am now employed by the charity to further its cause and further its vision.

This change in role is really a proactive change, it’s really reflective of the fact that the field has changed. There’s a growing number of promising developments in the field of spinal cord repair and restoration and therefore, there’s a growing need to support translating.

I will focus all of my attention on building out the strategic side of the research and development, and all of the collaborations and partnerships. International collaboration is absolutely central to getting to where we want to not only getting where we want to but also as quickly and as effectively as possible because you know, I think our community, our spinal cord injured community, they need a win.

We’ve been waiting a long time to see treatments materialise and that is something we would want to be able to see happen quickly and effectively.

What projects will the charity be working on?

When we started out 40 years ago, there were probably only a handful of laboratories around the world working on the problem. Now we have hundreds, which is of course good, but also it means that charities like Spinal Research have to be able to spread our impact and help make sure that these things are materialising out to the labs that they’ve got the best chance of being successful.

In terms of technologies, a spinal cord injury repair is something of an engineering challenge, I would say. So there’s a lot of neuro technology that is out there that we see often, whether that’s spinal stimulators, whether that’s brain spine interfaces, and other types of neuromodulation technology. They are clinical trials going on and there are even some companies that are very, very close to getting regulatory approval as well.

But of course, those are not the cure for spinal cord injury. Those will provide incremental and very meaningful changes to people’s lives but the job’s not done. And so, it is still really important for us to understand the means to repair the spinal cord. Cell therapeutics are still very, very important. Gene therapies, very important. Biomaterials and nanomaterials are really important, as are really smart drug delivery platforms because if we’re going to be able to create therapies and restore as much function as possible, we’re likely going to have to impact multiple mechanisms of repair at the same time.

In order to be able to do that and be able to deliver those therapeutics to the spinal cord or the brain, we’re going to have to be really smart in how we are able to do that because it’s not practical to have people go under the knife multiple times. These are very invasive surgeries if we’re looking to implant or transplant into the spinal cord.

So not only are there technologies important in terms of therapeutics, but also platform technologies that will allow clinicians to be able to deliver these multi modal therapies.

How will Spinal Research be coordinating this work?

That’s the key. Making sure you’ve got a good collaborative ecosystem is really, really important. We want to make sure that there’s a there’s a clear path for companies and labs to spin out and and make sure that there’s a clear path for companies to receive the expertise, the advice and the venture funding they need to do the preclinical activities, making sure that there’s then clinical research networks are ready and understand and suitably resourced to do clinical trials and pilots.

We have to prepare the regulators for the types of activity we want to do. Therefore, we will have to forge a path through the regulatory systems to see gene therapies and cell therapies, neuro technologies, biomaterials and nanomaterials to see them through to clinical trials.

The UK wants to be at the forefront of innovation in Life Sciences. Will you be working with the government on plans?

We have to impact the R&D pipeline from the point of discovery all the way through to the point of clinical trials and everything in between. So that that is kind of on us charities to be influential and impactful in those areas.

As a charity, we want to make sure that there is progress being made here in the UK. So one example of what we’re doing in the UK at the moment is that we are looking to catalyse activity by bringing our own international expertise, network of experts, and also resources to the UK clinical research network, which is a network of spinal injury centres and major trauma centres.

We will also work with the academic institutions that have spinal cord injury groups, bringing them together with the ultimate aim of scaling up the UK’s ability to host clinical pilots and trials on technologies and therapeutics for the best outcomes for spinal cord injury.

Government will play a big role, certainly ensuring that our academic clinical capacity is sufficient to deliver on what we’d really like to see from our vision, because we know that it’s not going to be a silver bullet.

We’ve got to test lots of different therapies and lots of sub populations have spinal cord and will need investment, both public and private sector. We are working with our friends at the Christopher Reeve Foundation trying to attract and support those companies, whether they’re startups or existing companies, biotechs, helping them navigate the path to clinics.

The field is now at a point where these first generation therapeutics are getting close to readiness. We’ve never really had an opportunity to deliver those before. So therefore, we need to make sure that the infrastructure and the expertise and the resources are there in order to do that. Because otherwise it’d be very disappointing. So the timing of this as a role change is really, really reflective of that.

We’ve always looked at focusing on what’s going on in the universities only. But now we’re looking at having industry and healthcare systems at the table. And equally, that this is a global endeavour. Clinical trials are now, more often than not, multicenter and internationally multicenter so we should be working more closely with our friends in Switzerland, Canada in the US, and Germany, and France and Japan and Australia for example, to actively move research forward.

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