The Queensland Government has invested $5 million in a Griffith University pre-clinical trial to prove that a “nerve bridge” across a damaged spinal cord may be the answer to otherwise permanent paralysis.

In a science and health collaboration, the project, led by Dr James St John, will be conducted across two of the university’s leading research institutes, the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) and the Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

The pre-clinical trial will expand on the work led by current Australian of the Year and GRIDD biomedical scientist Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim who showed that transplanting olfactory cells from the nose into the spinal cord was safe in humans.

The newly funded work will now use modern scientific approaches to produce a three-dimensional nerve bridge that can be transplanted into the spinal cord to promote regeneration across the injury site.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Griffith’s research team had the unique know-how and clinical trial experience following the work of Professor Mackay-Sim.

Premier Palaszczuk tours the lab with VC Ian O’Connor and Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim.

“Griffith’s spinal injury cure project has the potential to help remove barriers for spinal cord nerve cells and enable functional recovery — which would position Queensland research as the global leader in this key medical research and injury recovery field,”the Premier said.

“I’m delighted to be providing this $5 million funding over the next three years to continue to support the pioneering work being undertaken by a great Queensland-based team of researchers and clinicians.”

Treasurer Curtis Pitt said the funding would be provided by the Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC), the regulatory authority responsible for regulating Queensland’s compulsory Third Party Insurance scheme.

“MAIC can see that this has the potential to substantially lower health costs and could provide associated benefits through improved productivity of patients and carers; as well as generate jobs through training and physiotherapy,” Mr Pitt said.

Around 12,000 Australians carry the effects of spinal cord injury, with 300 new cases annually costing the Australian economy around $2 billion per year. Each case incurs a cost between $5 million to $9.5 million over a lifetime.

Dr St John, who heads up Griffith’s Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research Centre, said costs were high because the largest group of patients were young men between 16 and 24 with long lives still to live.

“A successful cure would create substantial savings for the entire health system,” he said.

The project also has the long-term support from the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation and the Clem Jones Foundation.

“Our team is very much focused on the needs and expectations of the people living with spinal cord injury,” Dr St John said.

“It is the drive and enthusiasm of Perry Cross himself that has led to this project coming to life.

“While we believe this approach will be successful, we must be very careful to ensure we get the best outcomes so there is still a long road to go. What is most encouraging is that we have assembled a highly motivated team with diverse skills and we have outstanding facilities and support here at Griffith University.”

The process for making the spinal cord bridges combines an advanced cell purification technique, natural product drug discovery for cell activation and engineering of the nerve bridge.

Following its surgical implantation, extensive long-term physiotherapy will be required to return as much sensation and movement to the patient as possible.

The partnership between the Queensland Government and Griffith University is designed to guarantee that if a cure for paralyses is found it is available to the public as inexpensively as possible.

Dr St John at work with his team in the lab.

Griffith University Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Ned Pankhurstsaid Griffith was proud to havesupported this team for such a long time,attracting significant investment in spinal research to get closer to the clinical application.

“Through the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, we have been investing in research into spinal cord repair for two decades. This exciting new phase will require the full range of human and technical resources of this institute,” he said.

“We are very grateful MAIC has decided to provide such unequivocal support. The Perry Cross Foundation and Clem Jones Group have been important in keeping the discovery science going and to get this additional help at the trial stage is vital.”

PCRF founder and Australia’s pioneer of spinal injury awareness and research, C2 ventilated quadriplegic Perry Cross, said the Queensland Government’s grant was a phenomenal milestone for all those living with and affected by paralysis.

“Every day in Australia at least one person has their life changed forever through the devastation of paralysis,” he said.

“The Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation has always had one main aim, to facilitate a cure for spinal cord injuries and today is an extremely gratifying and emotional day for us all.”

The Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation (PCSRF) has injected over $500,000 to the project in recent years and played an integral role in securing the State Government’s funding.

“The grant reiterates our confidence in the ground-breaking project, and the exceptional team of scientists behind it, and allows the research that we’ve backed for many years to finally progress into an official launch phase,” Mr Cross said.

Griffith University is anticipating the trial will begin in 2020. To donate visit this page.