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Could Cancer Genes Help Repair Spinal Cord Injuries?

Michael Dorausch

A Marquette University researcher hopes his work could be a promising step towards a cure for spinal cord injuries and the paralysis they cause.

Dr. Murray Blackmore turned to an unlikely ally in his work - cancer genes.

The most recent data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center shows that more than 12,000 people in the U.S. suffer significant spinal cord injuries each year. The injuries are both physically and financially vexing.

"The processes that go wrong in cancer turn out to be exactly the processes we want to engage to repair the nervous system." - Dr. Murray Blackmore

Current medical practices cannot heal a spinal cord injury, because nerve cells are unable to regenerate in the spine. This is where cancer genes come in, since cancer is the unregulated growth of cells in different parts of the body.

“The processes that go wrong in cancer turn out to be exactly the processes we want to engage to repair the nervous system,” says Dr. Blackmore. He's the lead researcher on this study as well as an assistant professor of biomedical sciences in Marquette University’s College of Health Sciences.

Dr. Blackmore’s work is being supported by a seed grant from the Milwaukee-based Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation. Riesch founded his eponymous foundation, after he was paralyzed in an accident at Marquette University nearly two decades ago.

The foundation gives money to scientists conducting new research on how to fix spinal cord injuries, a feat the scientific community has yet to achieve. Riesch says he has hope for the future.

“For me to be injured in this time period... it’s exciting because you see research such as Murray’s and other ones that are going on at the medical college and across the nation. And it’s exciting to see that,” he says. “It gives me, as somebody that’s paralyzed, hope that my life is going to change and even get better.”

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect. Before then, she was a director and producer for Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm Chicago Public Radio.