Pediatric spinal cord treatment yields scholarship for postdoc

September 28, 2018

After Johnathan George survived an encounter with an autoimmune liver disease which lead to a liver transplant in 2007, he refocused his life to pursue a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies with Specialization in Translational Bioengineering. As a graduate fellow in Dr. Tommy Roussel’s BioInstrumentation and Controls Research & Development, in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Behrman, Dept of Neurosurgery, Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, George is working to help children suffering from spinal trauma to gain the ability to sit again. It was through that research that George received the Crawford Scholar award for Summer 2018, a research fellowship by the Todd Crawford Foundation.

“After you’ve had a liver transplant, it’s like a second chance at life; I’ve got someone else’s liver inside of me. If I hadn’t gotten it, it would’ve gone to someone else who needed it,” said George. “It gives you a feeling of responsibility, to do something meaningful with this second chance.”

George received the Crawford Scholarship to help fund his research, which involves augmenting novel, science-based therapies to promote recovery in children with spinal cord injuries. Patients with spinal cord injuries often have paralysis of leg, trunk, and arm muscles.

Paralysis means that to sit, a patient must use an external support such as a wheelchair back or rely on their arms to hold themselves up. The core muscles in their trunk are paralyzed or too weak to help them sit upright.

This is an especially challenging obstacle with children, who still have developing skeletal structures and are thus at great risk for developing scoliosis, a curvature of the spine often requiring surgery.

While children respond to ‘activity-based locomotor training’ provided daily to activate the muscles below the lesion, including the trunk, George is working on a method to allow children to use these newly engaged postural muscles in a home setting that is accessible and enjoyable to the child.

His mechanism is based upon a rocking chair or swing design, where a small amount of energy can produce an equally small, but repetitive energy from the motion. Because of that repetitive input, it allows someone with very little muscle control to build up and develop that motion, allowing them the steps to self-train beyond the clinic.

“When they move, someone with a spinal cord injury still has a functioning nervous system below the injury. It’s just that the signals either from the brain or from the sensory system may not cross the injury site. The spinal cord receives inputs from the sensory organs, the skin and muscles sensors. You have all these different sensors that would normally go up to your brain,” said George. “Your spinal cord has a significant amount of processing power all by itself.”

In his youth, George wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Moving towards STEM, he went into mechanical engineering to satisfy his interest in fixing things, solving problems, and making things. He had a drive to create things that had a lasting impact on the world around him, and mechanical engineering offered him that opportunity as the precursor to the then burgeoning field of bioengineering.

“I remember designing wheelchairs. I never did anything with it back then, but it’s always been an interest of mine. The thing that finally happened was that my wife got a job working at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute here," said George. "When I got to Louisville, I looked into the school, and found that there was a PhD program in Bioengineering.”

The Crawford Scholarship is a renewable award totaling $3,000, which George has already received and applied towards much needed supplies.

“It pays for materials, equipment, and instrumentation. I think I can build our first prototype device that is usable by the therapists at Frasier,” said George. “The Crawford Scholar award, provided by a local businessman thru the Todd Crawford Foundation, serves as a needed start-up fund for research conducted by graduate and post-doctoral students and medical students targeting recovery after spinal cord injury in children”.

If interested in the Crawford Scholar Fund, please contact