UofL researchers win $1M to advance spinal cord injury technology

Posted by UofL News on April 4, 2024
UofL researchers win $1M to advance spinal cord injury technology

Spinal cord therapy research participant Jeff Marquis stands during therapy. Photo by Jessica Ebelhar.

University of Louisville researchers and their collaborators have won a Phase 2 prize in a $9.8 million National Institutes of Health innovation competition aimed at helping spinal cord injury patients regain function.

The four Phase 2 winners in the NIH’s Neuromod Prize competition each will receive $1 million, technical assistance and other resources to accelerate the development for neuromodulation therapies — those aimed at stimulating the nervous system to improve function and treat a range of conditions. At UofL, researchers are using these therapies to help patients with paralysis restore functions they may otherwise never have again.

“This technology holds enormous potential for people living with paralysis resulting from spinal cord injury,” said Susan Harkema, a UofL professor, researcher and lead on the Neuromod Prize project. “Our research so far, and the progress we will make supported by this new funding, could dramatically improve all aspects of their daily lives, from movement to cardiovascular function.”

The project team includes UofL Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center researchers Harkema and Charles Hubscher, working in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Medtronic and long-time clinical translational research partner, the Kessler Foundation. Together, they will develop a novel communication and analysis system, called StimXS, that integrates sensor information to both stabilize blood pressure and improve respiratory and bladder function.

This builds on past work and technology developed by UofL researchers, who have used neuromodulation to target and improve a range of health effects resulting from spinal cord injury, including cardiac, respiratory and bladder function and even the ability to walk — something previously thought to be impossible. To target these functions, the researchers use an implantable stimulation device that can send electrical signals to select areas of the spinal cord.

“With this new Phase 2 Neuromod funding, we can take a major step toward advancing this technology for broad use in patients,” said Hubscher, professor and co-director of the KSCIRC. “We’ve seen great results in the lab, but the true impact of this technology will be when it’s in a clinical setting and helping the people who need it most.”

This work has also been supported by several public and private sponsors, such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and multiple grants from the NIH. As part of the Neuromod Prize, Phase 2 winners will be exclusively invited to participate in Phase 3, which will have a total potential prize pool of $5 million.  

“This is truly game-changing research with the power to improve lives,” said Jon Klein, UofL’s interim executive vice president for research and innovation. “I applaud the research team for their success in driving this important work forward and am excited to see them translate this for broad use in patients.”

The Neuromod Prize is part of the NIH Common Fund’s Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program, which is making critical progress to help accelerate the development of neuromodulation therapies, close fundamental knowledge gaps, and offer tools that enable open science and innovation through the SPARC Portal.