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Raymond Grill, M.D.
assistant professor of neurosurgery, Medical School (MS) and Graduate School of Biomedical Science (GSBS)
Research Work: Acute and Chronic Models of Spinal Cord Injury
For as long as he can remember, Raymond Grill, M.D., has wanted to devote his research career to helping victims suffering from a spinal cord injury.
“Spinal cord injury is the main reason that I pursued a career in research,” Grill said. “This condition tends to strike the young in relatively great numbers. The primary insult has a low mortality rate, so the vast majority of victims survive to experience a lifetime of functional loss, and, in many cases, severe pain syndromes. All one needs to do is to speak with an individual living with a chronic spinal cord injury and hear the stories of how life has changed to understand the motivations of the researchers who work in this field.”
Spinal cord injury researchers, like Grill, also may become motivated by the fact that there is still no FDA-approved treatment for spinal cord injury in either the early or chronic phase.
With a lack of effective, early treatment, most spinal cord injuries fall into the chronic phase, which can last anywhere from months to years to decades.
“Laboratory studies tell us that interventions that show promise in the early or acute phase of injury do not show a similar promise in the chronic phase,” Grill said. “I decided that my lab would focus on the changes that occur in the spinal cord over long periods of time that may make the tissue less permissive to repair.”
Grill studies the long-term effects of spinal cord injury using a rodent contusion model in which mice or rats are surgically prepared to receive a spinal contusion injury.
“A contusion injury essentially means a bruising of the spinal cord,” Grill explained. “We have chosen this model as it bears the greatest similarity with the most common type of injury received by humans and treated in the clinic.”
Grill and his laboratory staff take care to assess the animal’s progress and motor activity on a weekly basis.
“We also may employ non-invasive imaging through collaboration with Ponnada Narayana, Ph.D., in the Department of Radiology (also on faculty at GSBS) by using MRI to follow the evolution of the traumatized area in the cord over long time periods within the same animal,” Grill added. “At the end of the experiment, we also employ a wide range of tissue imaging techniques, including the use of confocal microscopy, to study the presence and potential interaction of specific cells and proteins within the damaged spinal tissue.”
Current knowledge states that, once the spinal cord is damaged, it eventually reaches a type of steady condition where it does not get any better or worse over time. However, Grill’s research has led to an interesting finding, which may shed new light on the events that shape a spinal cord injury in the chronic phase.
“We believe we are seeing a slow, progressive spread of pathology away from the initial site of injury over a period of many months in our animal model of spinal cord injury,” Grill said. “If this observation holds up in humans, it would suggest that the initial injury sets in motion a wave of damage that may continue on long after that initial trauma – perhaps for life.”
Grill said he is encouraged by his findings, as they will help him better understand what really happens after a spinal cord is injured.
“The progressive changes we have observed are being driven by one or more biological processes. These processes, once identified, can serve as individual or group targets for intervention, potentially leading to the development of effective repair strategies in the chronic phase of injury,” he said.
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