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Australian research hope for people living with spinal cord injury

08 November, 2006

Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, has announced Victorian Government funding for an Australian-first research that could revolutionise the lives of people living with spinal cord injury.

During a visit to the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC), Bracks announced $413,000 grant for researchers at the centre to develop a structure like a bridge across damaged spinal cord that delivers stem cells, which could develop into and function like the spinal cord cells. 

Bracks said the grant was the first research funding to be announced as part of the State Government’s $63 million Victorian Neurotrauma Initiative with the Spinal Cord Society of Australia also contributing $100,000.

“In Australia, there are 400 new cases of spinal cord injury every year mainly from vehicle accidents, with about 12,000 spinal cord injury cases,” Bracks said.

“Few recover fully as it is difficult for damaged nerves to grow across the gap in a severed spinal cord.

“Spinal cord injuries come at huge personal cost but they also cost Australia $1 billion each year so the drive to find an effective therapy is therefore very important.

“This ground-breaking research using stem cells is a good example of the type of research being undertaken in Victoria that could have major benefits for people with spinal cord injuries.

“The beauty of stem cells as a basis for therapeutic treatment is they provide a regenerative process based on the body's own cellular structure.”

Bracks said current restrictions on other research techniques including somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) could jeopardise Australia’s world leading research and development status.

“The Victorian Government believes current bans on SCNT are holding back research into new treatments to tackle degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and cystic fibrosis,” Bracks said.

“Many countries already allow SCNT and if current restrictions are not eased not only will it threaten Australia’s world-leading research and development status it will see our brightest and best researchers leave our shores.”

ASCC’s chief scientific officer, Professor Stephen Livesey, and senior scientist in the ASCC’s Tissue Repair Group, Dr Kathy Traianedes, will lead the three-year program in collaboration with the University of Western Australia.

The team will use a form of tissue transplantation for repairing damaged soft tissue, known as acellular processing technology, pioneered by Prof Livesey.

The ASCC scientists will process the skin and spinal cord tissue to build a scaffold that bridges the damaged spinal cord in a bid to promote regeneration and prevent scars from forming.

A study in rats using this process has shown at seven months the processed peripheral nerve was the equivalent or better than a fresh graft.

A similar approach has already been used successfully in the USA on dead skin to treat burns, pelvic floor repair, orthopaedic surgery and breast reconstruction following mastectomy.

The Minister Responsible for the TAC, John Lenders, said the Victorian Neurotrauma Initiative aimed to coordinate research and new developments to improve patient outcomes and care.

“The VNI will invest in research-led improvements for treatments, management and better quality of life for neurotrauma patients,” Lenders said.

“The Bracks Government is giving Victorian families access to world class health care.”

Lenders said the $63 million initiative would also fund research into rehabilitation and recovery from neurotrauma, innovation in education and skills development and new developments in disability management.