25.02.2021

Wyss Center joins $36M international collaboration to improve recovery from spinal cord injuries

Collaboration
Shutterstock 1802258674 spinal cord illustration

Geneva, Switzerland - The Wyss Center has joined forces with an international consortium of universities, biomedical startups and nonprofit organizations to develop therapies for spinal cord injury that could improve long-term recovery. The five-year $36 million contract is part of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s, (DARPA) Bridging the Gap Plus Program.

The consortium will develop a new generation of intelligent bio-interfaces to overcome different challenges associated with spinal cord injury. The technologies under development target stabilization of the patient immediately following the injury, regenerative therapy, and functional restoration to support a new standard of care.

The Wyss Center joins the part of the collaboration that focuses on stabilizing a person’s blood pressure shortly after spinal cord injury; dramatic fluctuations in blood pressure are common and they can disrupt vision and inhibit everyday tasks. 

Recent work, by Professor Gregoire Courtine and his team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has shown that it is possible to stabilize blood pressure by stimulating the region of the spinal cord responsible for its regulation.

“The stimulation compensates for the broken communication line between the patient’s central nervous system and sympathetic nervous system,” said Professor Courtine.

The Wyss Center will adapt its medical grade NeuroKey software platform to continuously integrate data from blood pressure and blood flow sensors. NeuroKey will simultaneously process the sensor data in real time and deliver instructions for spinal cord stimulation to an implant developed by Courtine’s lab at EPFL. Onward, a startup based at EPFL Innovation Park and in the Netherlands, is commercializing the technology and is part of the DARPA consortium.

Dr Tracy Laabs, Chief Development Officer at the Wyss Center, who is leading the Wyss Center’s involvement in the project said: “This is an ambitious project to develop a system that takes on some of the tasks that the body can no longer do itself after a spinal cord injury.”

The teams will together optimize algorithms for the spinal cord stimulation patterns to maintain steady blood pressure.

“We are tremendously enthusiastic to be working with such a dynamic consortium. It allows us to combine our state-of-the-art software for real time brain signal monitoring and regulation with exciting technologies such as Prof. Courtine’s electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury and blood pressure stabilization, towards the acceleration of promising therapies to the clinic.” said Wyss Center’s CEO Dr Mary Tolikas, PhD, MBA.  

Other technologies that will be advanced by the multi-institution team include:

  • A near-infrared spectroscopy sensor, developed by the University of British Columbia and commercialized by Pathonix Innovations Inc., to assess blood oxygenation and blood flow at the site of spinal injury;
  • A fully implantable mean arterial pressure sensor that will be developed by a team of scientists at the University of Calgary, Teliatry and Battelle;
  • Neural stem cells and a 3D bioengineering scaffold developed by UC San Diego. The team will identify the optimal time period after spinal cord injury to transplant neural stem cells with the scaffold to improve functional recovery.

Together, the technologies developed by the consortium will integrate into a system-of-systems that will monitor information from sensors and stimulators to allow clinicians to assess patient progress and select the best therapies to improve recovery.

The international team of 12 institutions is led by University of California, Davis and includes: UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, Switzerland); biotech startups Pathonix Innovation Inc. of Vancouver, Onward (Lausanne, Switzerland), and Teliatry (Richardson, Texas); nonprofit institutions the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering (Geneva, Switzerland) and Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, Ohio); and a regulatory consultancy firm, NetValue BioConsulting Inc., Toronto.

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