Will nerve regeneration treat spinal cord injury?
What do Christopher Reeve and a tiny transparent worm have in common? What does a Sega video game have to do with the brain? In this episode of A Grey Matter we're talking about the Australian Brain Bee, and nerve regeneration, which might provide an avenue for treating spinal cord injury.
Donna Lu: I’m Donna Lu and you're listening to A Grey Matter. The neuroscience podcast from the Queensland Brain Institute. Today, we're talking about research into nerve regeneration, which might provide and actually treating spinal cord injury. But, first:
Man 2: Nunatak...Nunatak. N-U-N-A-T-A-K. Nunatak.
Donna Lu: That's the word that ended this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, in a tie. Spelling bees in the United States, have become something of an obsession, but here's a ‘Bee’ that you might not be familiar with: The Australian Brain Bee Challenge. It's a competition that brings together Australia’s best and brightest high school students; and it educates young people to find out more about neuroscience. The fact that yourselves are smarter than a tenth grader? Brain Bee contestants have to answer questions like: What is the medical term for when you stop dreaming before you fall asleep? And, sonic hedgehog is important for the development of what part of the nervous system? Yeah! That's right! Sonic hedgehog, which in case you're wondering, is a protein that was named after the Sega video game. The Brain Bee test and knowledge about topics ranging from memory and emotion to Alzheimer's disease and stroke. Some of the questions are at a second-year university science level and yet each year around five thousand year ten students voluntarily give up their free time to learn about brain function, structure and disease.
Teresa Tang: You know, it's actually quite difficult because I didn't have much time to study during schools. So, every holiday I'd be cramming for Brain Bee. [Chuckles]
Donna Lu: That's Teresa Tang, who competed in the Australian Brain Bee in 2011 and went on to win the International Brain Bee, in 2012. Teresa has no doubt that her Brain Bee experience has gotten her to where she is today; and advocates for the importance of early neuroscience education.
Teresa Tang: I think it's very important because a lot of diseases down the road like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia, depression have a lot to do with the brain, but people don't really know about neuroscience as a career; and so, to be introduced to us at such a young age, I think very important in deciding people's careers.
Donna Lu: Teresa is now studying at Princeton University, majoring in molecular biology with a minor in neuroscience. The Brain Bee was also a career-changing experience for Casey Linton, who's currently working here at QBI. Here's Casey speaking about her experience of the Brain Bee.
Casey Linton: I mean it's had a really significant effect. So, it made me really interested in neuroscience and when I got to uni, I realised that I wanted to take a research pathway. So, I'm now doing a PhD in Neuroscience at QBI.
Donna Lu: Casey who's halfway through a medical degree has taken two years out from that to work on her PhD full time. We'll talk about her research a little later but here's Casey again speaking about her Brain Bee involvement.
Casey Linton: So, I was in the Queensland State final of the Brain Bee in 2008. When I was in Year 11 and I won that final and then I went to the national final and was lucky enough to go to the international final. After that which was in Toronto. So, that was a great experience, to go overseas and meet other students who were interested in the brain and science, in general.
Donna Lu: And, how many people were at that International Final?
Casey Linton: I think there are about 10 at the time, but they were from all over the world. There were people from Uganda, Romania, the US. It was a great group of people.
Donna Lu: Here's what she had to say about the similarities between the Australian and International competitions.
Casey Linton: It was very similar. I think they have similar rounds as they do for the National Final here. So, there were basic question and answer rounds and then there was a round where we had to do clinical diagnosis. So, we played the role of doctors and we had to meet actors playing patients who would share the symptoms of a disease that you then had to diagnose. So, I think that was probably my favorite part.
Donna Lu: And did that have any impact on your decision to go into Medicine, at all?
Casey Linton: Well, I'd always wanted to go into medicine, but following the Brain Bee medical research became something I was interested in.
Donna Lu: More so than before?
Casey Linton: Definitely.
Donna Lu: Here’s Casey's advice to any high school students considering participating in the Brain Bee.
Casey Linton: I definitely buzz them to do the Brain Bee to start with and I advise them if they end up coming to QBI's, it's part of the final, really take the chance to go and see the labs that QBI, see the facilities, I think they do tours of the QBI facilities as part of that competition. It's a really great chance to see what real research is like. The real research environment. So, that is my recommendation.
Donna Lu: QBI will host the Queen that final year's Brain Bee on July 21st. Excitingly, the International Brain Bee will also be held in Queensland, in Cannes later in the year. We wish all contestants the best of luck.
Superman says, tired of this town. Superman says, it's bringing me down.
Christopher Reeve: I was injured at the time there [was great center for cynism]. I still remember, so-called experts who would say that the spinal cord can’t regenerate, it can never be repaired.
Donna Lu: Those were the words from the last public speech that the late Christopher Reeve gave at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in 2004. Reeve, who was renowned for his role of Superman, became quadriplegic when he was thrown off a horse in 1995; and campaigned tirelessly about treatment of spinal cord injury for the rest of his life. When spinal cord injury is irreversible, it's because the nerves, whether they be controlling movement or sensation have been damaged beyond repair. In humans, nerves in the Central Nervous System, that's the brain and the spinal cord, have a limited ability to heal or regrow spontaneously. Nerve regeneration, as we've mentioned, is one of the research areas that teams here at QBI are focused on. Casey Linton's Ph D is actually based on the understanding how nerves are able to regenerate in a worm called C. elegans. Here's Casey again.
Casey Linton: So, we look at nerve regeneration; and we look at regeneration of the axon which is the part of the neuron that transmits the signal. So, we look at what happens after an axon is severed, so cut in half and in the worm, we do this with the laser. So, we severed the axon and then we look at how that axon can regrow after the injury and what's really interesting in C. Elegans is that this axon can regrow and fuse back to the severed part of the axon. And so, this is something that only happens in C. Elegans. It doesn't happen in humans, but we're interested in perhaps working out how it happens in worm so that we can translate that into people. The clearest application would be two spinal cord injuries. So if we perhaps identify the proteins or other molecules that can fuse an axon, we could then use those to treat patients with spinal cord injury and improve the functional outcome for them.
Donna Lu: Professor Massimo Hilliard’s lab which Casey is a part of recently discovered the molecular pathway that allows for two fragments of an axon to fuse after injury. There's a specific protein in C. Elegans that does the job.
Casey Linton: The protein it's called the Fusigen. So, that's what they call a protein that can fuse membranes and it's got a three letter name: EFF1.
Donna Lu: While the discovery of the EFF1 is certainly exciting, the fact remains that this molecule is present only in worms and not humans, which explains why for the time being at least, individuals with spinal cord injury can't spontaneously recover.
Casey Linton: It's great that we're studying this process in worms because it's not something that we'd find in humans, but it's something that we could potentially use as a therapy in humans. Some time down the track.
Donna Lu: Casey is now around her last year full time research.
Casey Linton: I go back to studying medicine next year for a couple of years.
Donna Lu: And you are gonna continue the research during that time?
Casey Linton: I'll be continuing it part time while I finish my medical degree
Donna Lu: And then what's next after you finish medicine? Do you think you're going into clinical practice or you’ll do kind of bit of both?
Casey Linton: Yeah! Well, the path I am on at the moment allows me to do research alongside clinical practice. So, it's really my dream to combine the two and I think training people in that way is how we're going to translate basic science discoveries into the clinic in to the future.
Donna Lu: That's all for this episode. Let us know what you think or if you have any requests to future podcast, we're on Twitter and on Facebook or you could give us a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening.