Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any of the body's cell types, and so offer tremendous promise for treating many degenerative diseases and nervous system injuries. In the case of spinal cord injury, embryonic stem cells could eventually be used to replace nerve cells.

In the early days of stem cell research, RIRC scientists collaborated with biotech companies to develop techniques to differentiate human stem cells into cell types that would be useful for transplantation and then tested their effectiveness in improving function in rodent models of SCI. These early studies were the foundation for the world’s first FDA-approved clinical trial of a therapy based on human embryonic stem cells and the world’s first clinical trial of stem cell therapy for chronic spinal cord injury. Both these trials are ongoing.

Now, RIRC scientists are testing approaches that use stem cells to create bridges across injury sites and re-establish function in the injured spinal cord to reverse paralysis.

Stem Cell Researcher

Oswald Steward, Ph.D.

Oswald Steward is known for his research on molecular mechanisms of nerve cell regeneration in the injured spinal cord. His approach combines interventions to modify gene expression with the use of stem cell transplants to restore connections that were damaged by injury.

Dr. Steward's Profile

Regeneration to Reverse Paralysis

Spinal Cord Regeneration

A spinal cord injury breaks the connections between the brain and the spinal cord that control the ability to move, to feel touch, and to control bowel, bladder and sexual function.

All scientists agree that the best way to restore function after spinal cord injury is to find ways to regenerate the connections that are broken. Indeed, inducing regeneration has been the holy grail for research for more than a century. RIRC scientists, working in collaboration with scientists at other universities, have achieved major breakthroughs in experimental animals, establishing that regeneration of connections can be achieved through interventions that are plausible therapeutic candidates. Now, we are working diligently to move these therapeutic candidates from the lab to the clinic.

Oswald Steward

Dr. Steward's Lab

In a bi-coastal effort with Dr. Zhigang He at the Children’s hospital at Harvard, Dr. Steward’s lab seeks to develop ways to promote regeneration of the connections that control our ability to move voluntarily. It is the first time in history we have seen impressive regeneration on the other side of an injury site.

Dr. Steward's Profile

Other Consequences of SCI Including Pain and Bladder Dysfunction

Pain and Bladder

Stem cells have the potential to become any cell of the body and after a spinal cord injury, researchers have used them to replace everything from the supporting cells of the nervous system to the actual cells that transmit information from the brain to different parts of the body.

The Havton lab at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center and the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell research Center at UC Irvine is utilizing stem cells to replace cells located in the low lumbar and sacral regions of the spinal cord that are injured after a trauma to the lumbosacral spinal cord and nerve roots. Physicians often refer to these injuries as conus medullaris or cauda equina injuries. After a low spinal cord injury the bladder may become underactive because spinal cord motor neurons that normally signal the bladder to contract are either dead or dying. As a result, the bladder tends to fill up more than it should, because the affected individual is unable to sense the fullness of the bladder or empty the bladder voluntarily. Such over-filling of the bladder can lead to urinary tract infections, kidney disease or overflow incontinence. Ongoing research in the Havton lab focuses on the nerve cells in the spinal cord that normally contract the bladder and cause voiding. For this purpose, stem cells are used in laboratory models to replace the injured and lost motor neurons. The goal of the study is for cell replacement therapy to improve bladder function and the quality of life of people living with a low spinal cord injury.

Catherine Cahill

Dr. Cahill's Lab

Dr. Cahill’s lab recently identified that there is dysfunction of reward circuitry in an animal model of neuropathic pain. Pain changes reward circuits and disrupting these circuits may increase pain. This is a major discovery and the Cahill lab is now following up with research aimed at understanding the mechanisms responsible for the dysfunction of brain circuitry involved in emotion and reward in models of chronic pain.

Dr. Cahill's Profile

Music Glove Used to Foster Dexterity


Research is currently being conducted using the MusicGlove to help foster dexterity and measure movement for data measurements in those suffering from spinal cord injury and stroke.

The MusicGlove helps people improve finger dexterity by playing a music-based game similar to the popular video game GuitarHero. This device is being commercialized by Flint Rehabilitation Devices, an Orange County start-up company founded by UCI students Nizan Friedman and Dan Zondervan, with the support of small business innovation research grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Kelli Sharp

iMOVE lab

Kelli Sharp, DPT is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dance in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UCI. Dr. Sharp’s research embodies two pillars. The first pillar focuses on injury prevention and wellness for dancers using motion capture system and applying methods of analysis to determine the relationship of motion in space to reduce risk of injuries. The second pillar focuses on the development of novel technologies to advance rehabilitation strategies for individuals with neurological disorders by incorporating tools such as motion capture systems and functional magnetic resonance with dance/movement therapy.

“For the first time in history there is legitimate OPTIMISM that neurological damage can be controlled and repaired.”

-- Dr. Oswald Steward