In this interview, we talk with Dr. Dena Shahriari, a co-investigator from the biomaterials team helping to realize the vision of the Mend the Gap Project.
Tell us about yourself!
I am an Assistant Professor at the Department of Orthopaedics and the School of Biomedical Engineering at UBC, also working at ICORD [the International Collaborations on Repair Discoveries]. Research in my lab, called the BioAugmentative Interfaces Laboratory, focuses on restoring organ function after different injuries, particularly by advancing bioelectronics and biomaterials-based technologies.
How can biomaterials contribute to treating spinal cord injury?
In spinal cord injury (SCI), nerve fibres are damaged or transected and the connection between the brain and the body is partly or completely lost. Regenerating these neural connections means regrowing nerve fibres, but without a method to guide regrowth, the neurons will grow in random directions. Biomaterials offer ways to guide this growth across the injury site. While in the context of the spinal cord there is currently no clinically-available biomaterial, there exist several natural and synthetic materials that are being explored in research laboratories and have been shown to guide neural regrowth in a linear fashion.
How will Mend the Gap contribute to this research?
Our team at Mend the Gap includes world-leading experts in biomaterials, who have pioneered new types of materials that can guide cellular regeneration. Over the next several years, these researchers will work collaboratively with materials chemists and engineers to modify the materials, making them highly customizable and tailored to the biology of a SCI. Mend the Gap aims to produce a biomaterials system that serves multiple functions in restoring neural connections, by guiding regeneration using unique architectures and controlling the local release of drugs to support healing.
What is your long-term vision for treating spinal cord injury?
It is a difficult task to predict what the future holds, and our team is sensitive about giving false hope through speculation. At this time, I can say that I am an advocate of hope. I believe in the quality of our research, and that someday we will restore significant function to people who suffer injury. Though it is important note that individuals who experience injury have certain perspectives on what constitutes a significant restoration. Through ICORD we have a long history of working with affected individuals to hear about what matters most to them, and we can now use these findings as our goal posts in future clinical trials.
Where does your passion come from?
It is an enormous privilege and utter joy to advance science, and potentially to have an impact on human health. At the same time, I have the opportunity to be part of educating the next generation of innovators who will make discoveries that improve the future of healthcare. In Mend the Gap, I have the ability to bring my research and training together with dozens of researchers around the world, where we support each other and create new opportunities to make a difference.