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Biomedical Engineering Graduate Students Receive Spinal Cord Injury Fellowships

Two doctoral students in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Anthony D’Amato and Christopher Johnson, have been awarded New York State Department of Health Spinal Cord Injury Research Board Predoctoral Fellowships.

The Spinal Cord Injury Research Board (SCIRB) awards predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships to stimulate spinal cord injury research, to accelerate the pace with which basic findings are translated into clinical benefits for spinal cord-injured persons, and to fill fundamental gaps in knowledge that are barriers to scientific advances in spinal cord injury research.

Both D’Amato and Johnson are graduate researchers in the lab of Ryan Gilbert, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer. The Gilbert Lab focuses on the development of biomaterials for use in spinal cord injury (SCI) repair. These materials are designed to serve as growth conduits, drug delivery vehicles, support scaffolds for regeneration, and culture models for preliminary in vitro testing.

“These fellowships will allow Anthony and Christopher to pursue high-impact research over a three-year span, and will provide funds to further their research and education activities,” said Gilbert. “We are very thankful that the state has these opportunities, and that our students are competitive for such awards.”

Johnson won a three-year, $135,600 award for the project “Magnetic Alignment of Electrospun Fibers for Treatment of Acute Spinal Cord Contusive Injury.” His research aims to design a minimally invasive way of delivering electrospun fibers after spinal cord injury.

“A number of studies have shown that creating a bridge across a spinal cord injury site is a very effective way to repopulate the injury site with healthy cells,” said Johnson. “So our idea is to inject magnetic fibers into the spinal cord and then move and realign them with an external magnetic field. If this works, it would allow us to provide a bridge without as high a risk of infection as that seen with invasive surgery.”

D’Amato won a three-year, $153,120 award for the project “Estrogen Based Biomaterials Promote Astrocytic Growth Factor Production and Provide Neuroprotection Against Glutamate Excitotoxicity.” In a departure from his recent research that has focused on developing drug-delivering biomaterials for SCI treatment, D’Amato will instead be making materials directly out of the drug.

“In this case the drug is estrogen, which has a strong potential for helping spinal cord injury patients,” said D’Amato. “Thus, the project will consist of making a fibrous biomaterial scaffold out of a synthetically polymerized estrogen―we will be polymerizing estrogen for the first time in collaboration with Dr. Edmund Palermo’s lab in the Materials Science and Engineering program. I will then be testing the estrogen-based material on different central nervous system cells (neurons and astrocytes) to determine the regenerative potential of this novel scaffold.”

Each year, approximately 1,000 New York residents suffer traumatic spinal cord injuries, joining the nearly 282,000 people living in the United States with paralysis. The New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board was created in 1998 to support neurological spinal cord injury scientific research projects from leading researchers within New York state to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Among the funding opportunities provided by SCIRB, the predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships were created to support the continued training of researchers with extraordinary potential for making significant contributions to the fields of SCI research.