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To Repair Spinal Cord Injuries, Researcher Looks to Defeat Scars

Stem cells show promise in regenerating nerve growth

The complex world of Stephen Davies, PhD, is populated by nerve cells and fibers, star-shaped cells, precursor cells, and proteins. But the work he does with it all has one simple goal: to give hope to the victims of spinal cord injuries, and, ultimately, a wide array of neurological disorders that cause misery and exact an enormous individual and societal price.

Davies’ lab in Research Complex 1 on the Anschutz Medical Campus has attracted attention throughout the worldwide medical research community.

Stephen Davies, PhD

Stephen Davies, PhD

Davies is pushing forward with promising treatments he’s developed that use stem cells to regenerate nerve growth in injured spinal cords. The approach has helped laboratory mice with spinal cord injuries (or SCIs) regain their mobility. He hopes to bring the treatments to clinical trial and, one day, mainstream medicine.

“I’m optimistic we’ll have therapies for both acute and chronic injuries in the future,” he says. “Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Suppressing formation of scar tissue

The scar tissue that results from SCIs is the primary target of Davies’ work.

Davies found that treating animals with SCIs with a protein called decorin not only suppressed formation of molecules responsible for producing scarring, but also stimulated the growth of neurons (nerve cells) and axons, the long nerve cell fibers that conduct electrical impulses between the spinal cord and the brain.

“Decorin overrides the inhibitors to new nerve growth and allows new communications to be made," Davies explains. He says new neuron and axon growth in laboratory mice with decorin increased at 15 times the rate of untreated mice.

“The therapies we’re working on have an obvious application for the treatment of wounded warriors” coming home from the Middle East," Davies says. “There are terrible neurologic problems being accrued on the battlefield and from [improvised explosive devices].”

A broader treatment potential

He believes his research could ultimately lead to treatments for far more than spinal cord injuries. “It’s a technical approach to general repair of the central nervous system,” he asserts. “It could be developed for use in stroke, traumatic brain injuries and a variety of neurologic disorders. And it could prove effective at preventing atrophy of damaged brain neurons and protecting them from dying.” That advance would offer hope to Alzheimer’s patients.

This page is adapted from a story written by Tyler Smith that appeared in the UCH Insider, the hospital's candid e-newsletter. Get a PDF of the entire story here.

The Insider, which is published biweekly, is available to people outside the hospital via a free e-mail subscription. Smith ( is managing editor of the Insider.

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