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Towards repairing spinal cord injury

Dr Md Alamgir Hossain – Queensland Micro and Nanotechnology Centre, Griffith University
Rhys Heeley – MacGregor State High School
Byron Anderson – MacGregor State High School

In a world where superheroes are often defined by their capes and superpowers, Dr Mariyam Murtaza stands out as a real-life hero who fights a prolific enemy – spinal cord injury. Her profound dedication and relentless efforts aim to alleviate the suffering of over 20,000 Australians living with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers.

Imagine waking up one day and finding out that you can’t walk or even move your hands anymore. Simple tasks like eating, dressing, or even hugging your loved ones become impossible. This is the devastating reality for many individuals who experience a spinal cord injury. Paraplegics, who make up 58% of these individuals, suffer paralysis below the waist, while quadriplegics, making up 42%, experience paralysis of all four limbs. Their lives and those of their family members dramatically change overnight.

These injuries also carry an enormous economic burden. Imagine the entire wealth of East Timor, a small country with a net worth of 4 billion dollars. Now, imagine nearly all that money, about 3.7 billion dollars, being spent every year to support Australians with spinal cord injuries. This is the scale of the problem that Dr Murtaza is committed to resolving.

Dr Murtaza and her team at the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, Griffith University, are developing a groundbreaking method to treat spinal cord injuries. Imagine if we could make the body heal itself from within, using its own cells? This is what her treatment, called cell transplantation therapy, seeks to achieve.

In this process, a small amount of tissue is carefully extracted from the patient’s nose. Why the nose, you might ask? The answer is that the cells in our nose are unique. Unlike most other nerve cells in our body, they continue to regenerate throughout our lives, making them prime candidates for nerve repair.

Once enough cells have been grown, they are transplanted into the patient’s spinal column at the site of the injury. Because the cells are from the patient’s body, the risk of immune rejection is significantly lower, simplifying the process. This innovative approach could repair the nerve damage, possibly restoring some motor and sensory functions in patients with enough rehabilitation.

This revolutionary therapy is scheduled to enter Phase 1 Clinical Trials next year. If this works, it’s not just a win for those injured; it’s a win for everyone. For perspective, even if only 10% of those living with spinal cord injury get better muscle function, Australia could save $3.5 billion. If the treatment is super successful? That saving could skyrocket to $10.3 billion.

And for those suffering from these injuries, the stakes are personal. Many face up to 7 times higher risks of dying earlier than the average person, struggle with unemployment rates 10 times higher, and many deal with mental health challenges like PTSD and depression.

If successful, it could not only transform the lives of thousands of Australians with spinal cord injuries but also significantly reduce the massive economic burden of these injuries. Moreover, the development of this treatment could stimulate the Australian economy by creating new jobs in the medical and research sectors.

The ultimate goal of Dr Murtaza’s work isn’t just to repair damaged nerves. She dreams of a future where spinal injuries will cause less harm and suffering. By globalising this treatment, she hopes to bring us one step closer to that future.

In the end, Dr. Murtaza’s journey isn’t just about medical science; it’s about giving hope to those whose lives have been turned upside down by spinal cord injuries. It’s about telling them that their story isn’t over yet and that they can dream of a day when they can walk, hug their loved ones, and live their lives to the fullest once again. This is the true impact of Dr. Mariyam Murtaza’s work.

Judges’ Feedback

“Really engaging article, well done explaining the solution for a general audience and providing interesting data on the size of the issue and potential impact of the researcher’s work.”

“I liked how you concluded the story on a message of hope, which leaves the reader feeling inspired.”