Craig Hospital is known as one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the world for treating spinal cord injuries (SCI), but it’s now stepping up its research department and may someday help people who have sustained a devastating SCI with groundbreaking work that uses stems cells derived from the dental pulp found in baby and wisdom teeth.
Dr. Leslie Morse was hired as the Medical Director of Research at Craig Hospital in April 2016. Since that time, she and her team have been conducting research with dental pulp stem cells in assisting neuro-recovery.
In the Craig lab, they are working with dental pulp stem cells that have been derived from extracted wisdom teeth – they take the pulp and isolate the stem cells. What makes dental pulp stem cells so important to this research is that they can easily be made to act like nerve cells. “Because of their embryonic origin, they have a heightened ability to be driven to form elements of the nervous system,” said Dr. Morse.
Partnering with Dr. Ricardo Battaglino at the University of Colorado Denver, they are conducting research with rodents with bruised spinal cords (a bruised spinal cord is the most common form of spinal injury after trauma), and injecting dental pulp stem cells into the injured rats’ spinal columns at the time of injury. The results have been promising: They’re seeing improvement in neuro-recovery in the rodents after being injected with the stem cells. From the time of injury and injection to eight weeks post-injury, the rats are displaying improved limb motor function. The next step will be to determine if there is similar improvement if the injection is done one week post-injury.
Dr. Morse and her team are finalizing several papers on their findings, which will be submitted to peer review journals. The long-term goal is to complete the pre-clinical work and move into clinical trials with humans using dental pulp stem cells to promote neuro-recovery. At this time, human trials are still several years away, but the team is working diligently toward that goal.
In addition to the work on dental pulp stem cells, Dr. Morse is also conducting research around bone density in people who have sustained an SCI. When people stop walking due to an injury, the bones respond very quickly, essentially aging and they become more susceptible to fractures. In fact, people who are eight to nine years post-injury, who are not ambulatory, can start to experience fractures. She and her team are researching what the cellular signals are that are weakening bones, so they can start to find therapies that stop or block that path and prevent bone loss. The goal is to design therapies that either regenerate bone or block the process of weakening entirely.
Craig received funding from the Department of Defense to study the effects of robotic-assisted gait with the Indego® exoskeleton (Indego® is a powered lower limb exoskeleton enabling people with spinal cord injuries to walk and participate in over-ground gait training) to regenerate bone in spinal cord injury. The research team is recruiting people who have not been walking routinely in the Indego® exoskeleton to walk three times a week for six months at the Craig PEAK Center. They are measuring each person’s bone density and bone strength after the six-month program.
Craig is also studying the effects of common cholesterol lowering medication, simvastatin (statins), to prevent bone loss in the immediate months after SCI.
Dr. Morse says a lot of advancements are being made in rehabilitation research, but the biggest barriers are funding for the research. She has recently established an osteoporosis laboratory at Craig to further the research in bone density and bone loss, because these are critical concerns for people who cannot walk.
“Rehabilitation research is one of the most exciting fields in science, and we will see amazing advances that will have a tremendous impact on people who have suffered an SCI. Craig is a leader in the world in this field and has a lot of opportunity to contribute to the advances that are being made,” said Dr. Morse.
Leslie Morse, DO
Endowed Medical Director of SCI Research, Craig Hospital
Clinical Associate Professor of PMR, UC Denver