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Biomedical Engineering Faculty Receives the 2020 Provost’s Research Award for Research in Spinal Cord Injuries

Courtney Dumont, an assistant professor in University of Miami College of Engineering (UMCoE) Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), received the 2020 Provost’s Research Award (PRA) for her research in regenerating nerve cells following spinal cord injury. The PRA, which are divided into five categories – arts, business, humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences – are designed to foster excellence in research and creative scholarship at the University of Miami. Dumont’s award celebrates her scholarly, scientific and creative merit in treating spinal cord injuries and will fund her research project titled, “Modular hydrogel tubes for chronic spinal cord repair.”

Dumont, who joined the UMCoE as an assistant professor in BME last year, focuses her research in the field of therapies for nervous system repair, which includes spinal cord injuries.

“The spinal cord contains a bundle of nerves and cellular structures that begins at the brain stem and continues to the bottom of the spine, running down the middle of the back,” explains Dumont. “It acts like a communication center for the entire body, transmitting and processing signals, which allows different segments of the body to communicate with the brain. Damage to any part of the spinal cord often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other body functions below the site of the injury.”

Currently, there are no known ways to reverse damage to the spinal cord. However, researchers are continually working on new treatments, including prostheses and medications, which may promote regeneration of nerve cells or improve the function of the nerves that remain after a spinal cord injury. For example, researchers at UMCoE have been working on using biomaterials – natural or synthetic material that can safely interact with living tissue – for regeneration of nerve cells after a spinal cord injury.

Depending on their initial design, biomaterials can serve different purposes to aid in regeneration after a spinal cord injury. For instance, biomaterials can fill the void in the spine created by the injury, guide nerves growing through the injury, or even deliver medication directly to the spinal cord. While biomaterials offer promising new strategies for treating the devastating consequences of spinal cord injuries, they currently come up short in their ability to concurrently achieve these goals.

Dumont has been working extensively to address the limitations of existing classes of biomaterials for spinal cord injury repair. She has developed a system of hydrogel tubes that can easily accommodate different injury geometries while providing all the basic functions different types of biomaterials deliver.

“The hydrogel tubes are constructed with standardized units giving them flexibility and variety in use,” explains Dumont. “This also makes the hydrogel tubes an attractive off-the-shelf product, greatly increasing their applications while reducing their cost.”

Thus far, Dumont’s hydrogel tubes have been successfully evaluated in acute penetrating injuries – injuries caused by a foreign object piercing the skin and underlying spinal cord – but have not been tested in contusion injuries – injuries caused by an impact that does not pierce the skin – which make up 86% of all spinal cord injuries.

Dumont’s current research project, funded by the PRA, will test the tubes in contusion spinal cord injuries and evaluate whether they lead to increased nerve regeneration without causing additional injury or inflammation. The success of this project will provide the foundation for a new class of nerve guides that can be modified to achieve more complex tissue regeneration after spinal cord injuries.

“Spinal cord regeneration is the goal of every spinal cord injury survivor,” explains Dumont. “This research moves us one step closer to finding better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for the paralysis resulting from spinal cord injury.”

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