A star of spinal cord research

(Edmonton) A researcher in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry received the Barbara Turnbull Award for Spinal Cord Research in Toronto Friday.

Simon Gosgnach, of the Department of Physiology at the University of Alberta, was awarded the annual prize given to a researcher who receives the highest score in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Operating Grants competition in the area of spinal cord injuries.

“I’m delighted and honoured to accept this prestigious award,” said Gosgnach, who won a CIHR new investigator award in 2007. “As a society, it’s imperative to invest in research if we hope to improve our understanding of mobility and to develop new treatments for spinal cord injury.”

Gosgnach is looking at how to activate the neural network in the spinal cord, knowledge that can help other researchers trying to develop therapies for spinal cord injury patients.

“If you could activate (nerve) cells electrically or by local drug application, it could potentially result in some sort of function of the limbs below the injury site,” he said.

Barbara Turnbull is a well-known Toronto journalist and research activist who was shot and paralyzed from the neck down during a convenience store robbery when she was 18. She said she was impressed with Gosgnach’s work.

“It means a great deal to me to support basic research, which is still necessary before scientists find that magic combination which will impact chronic spinal injuries,” said Turnbull, chair and president of the Barbara Turnbull Foundation. “I have deep respect for the dedication of researchers like Dr. Gosgnach exhibit year after year.”

Gosgnach uses a genetic approach to understand the neural network that controls walking, classifying or grouping neurons in the spinal cord based on their genetic code. Then he studies the function of these cell populations.

“Using genetics, you can split the spinal cord from millions of cells down to 10-20 (cell group) populations,” he said. “So all of a sudden, instead of studying the function of a single cell during walking…you can study entire population groups.” Genetic tricks can then be used to identify and/or record the activity of specific cell populations.

The Barbara Turnbull Award for Spinal Cord Research was established in 2001 to raise awareness of the more than four million Canadians who are afflicted with neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. The award is administered through a partnership of the Barbara Turnbull Foundation, the NeuroScience Canada Foundation, and the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. This award is for $50,000.