Spinal cord injury research program among eight to win Neuromod Prize

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – University of Louisville researchers and their collaborators have won a Phase 1 prize in a $9.8 million National Institutes of Health innovation competition for work aimed at helping spinal cord injury patients regain function.

The eight Phase 1 winners in the NIH’s Neuromod Prize competition each receive $100,000, technical assistance and other resources to accelerate the development of neuromodulation therapies to treat a range of conditions. At UofL, researchers are using these therapies to help patients with paralysis restore functions they may otherwise never have again.

“The potential this provides for people living with paralysis from a spinal cord injury is tremendous,” said Susan Harkema, a UofL professor, researcher and lead on the Neuromod Prize project. “This research and the progress we’ve made will improve all aspects of their daily lives, from movement to cardiovascular function.”

The project team includes UofL Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center researchers Harkema and Claudia Angeli, working in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Medtronic and long-time clinical translational research partner, the Kessler Foundation. Together, they will develop a novel communication and analysis system, called StimXS, that integrates multi-modal sensor information to simultaneously stabilize blood pressure and improve respiratory and bladder function.

This builds on past work and technology developed by UofL researchers, who have used neuromodulation to target and improve a range of health effects resulting from spinal cord injury, including cardiac, respiratory and bladder function and even the ability to walk — something previously thought to be impossible. To target these functions, the researchers use an implantable epidural stimulation device that can send electrical signals to select areas of the spinal cord.

“We have seen excellent results in the lab, and now, our goal is to develop this therapy for broad use in patients,” said Angeli, assistant professor of bioengineering in the UofL J.B. Speed School of Engineering and director of the Epidural Stimulation Program at KSCIRC. “This Phase 1 win and the support we’ll receive as a result is a step toward that goal.”

This work has also been supported by several public and private sponsors, such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, the Neilsen Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and multiple grants from the NIH, including a recent award for $7.8 million. As part of the Neuromod Prize, Phase 1 winners will be exclusively invited to participate in Phase 2 to conduct proof-of-concept studies. Up to four Phase 2 winners may be selected to advance to Phase 3. Phase 2 will have a total potential prize pool of $4 million and Phase 3 will have a total potential prize pool of $5 million.

“The work these UofL researchers are doing has the potential to make, and is already making, a significant impact on the daily lives of patients living with spinal cord injury,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation. “This is meaningfully advancing human health, and I look forward to seeing them translate this for broad use in patients.”

The Neuromod Prize is part of the NIH Common Fund’s Stimulating Peripheral Activity to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program, which is making critical progress to help accelerate the development of neuromodulation therapies, close fundamental knowledge gaps, and offer tools that enable open science and innovation through the SPARC Portal.