Recently a visionary biomedical engineer-trained researcher from University of Massachusetts Amherst received a three-year, $400,000 grant as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award. In what sounds more like a procedure out of futuristic science fiction, Chase Cornelison has been investigating the potential to actually harness the multiplying power of cancer cells to treat spinal cord injuries and restore function following brain damage. Apparently, this research has real backers from the NIH, namely from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Engineering. A novel space, little to no minimal preliminary data exists.
The Problem: Neural Cells Do Not Recover nor Regenerate
As reported recently by University of Massachusetts Amherst, spinal cord and brain injuries are so devastating, often causing lifelong paralysis and disability, because unlike cells in other organs, neural cells do not recover or regenerate. As noted by the investigator, “If you get a neural injury, that injury doesn’t heal over time.” He continues, “One of the major reasons is because the tissue and the cells in the tissue stay inflammatory forever. We’re looking at remodeling the cells in that tissue and turning them toward pro-growth instead of toward inflammation.”
Cornelison, based on work at his lab at UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences, seeks to merge two areas of his expertise and background. When he was a graduate student, he developed materials from nervous tissue for spinal cord regeneration. Then as a post-doc, he very intentionally focused on brain cancer.
Cornelison commented I was interested in learning new ways to modulate or modify the immune response,” he says. “And I realized one of the best ways was cancer. That’s why I gravitated toward cancer as a post-doc.”
The Path Forward
Retraining neural cells to suppress inflammation and promote repair could potentially reverse the damage caused by spinal cord and brain injuries and diseases, including paralysis, Cornelison theorizes. To develop new therapeutic strategies, he studies the microenvironment where cancer cells meet and train other cells to aid tumor growth.
“That’s why tumors keep growing,” he explains. “We’re looking at how the cancer cells are interacting with the neural cells and trying to identify some of the signals passed to those cells so we can reengineer those signals as implantable material to try to regrow an injured spinal cord or injured brain tissue.”
The Mission—Build 3D ‘Scaffolds’
Cornelison’s aim is to build three-dimensional “scaffolds” from elements of cancer that his team can engineer as matrices. Two specific elements are the molecules that the tumors secrete into the environment and the sugars on the cancer cell surface, both of which may be involved in changing the behavior of other, non-cancer cells.
“We are not implanting a tumor into the nervous tissue so there is not any risk of promoting tumor growth,” Cornelison says. “We are isolating only specific factors that would be made by the tumor and we are taking them out of the context of cancer and basically purifying them. We’re using those purified molecules, which are no longer associated with the cancer.”
Chase Cornelison, Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst