Some members of the team working on EphA4 (L-R) Professor Andrew Boyd, Ms Sophie Tajouri and  Professor Perry Bartlett.

In a joint study, researchers at QBI, together with colleagues at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) and the University of Melbourne, have advanced a potential new treatment for spinal cord injury with a view to starting clinical trials.

The collaboration showed that blocking a specific protein could make a dramatic difference to the balance and limb coordination of rats with spinal injuries.

QBI Director and study co-leader, Professor Perry Bartlett said the research was extremely exciting and both confirmed and extended previous studies showing that blocking the action of the receptor EphA4 prevented the loss of nerve tissue following injury and promoted repair. 

Professor Bartlett and QIMR’s Professor Andrew Boyd first identified the role of EphA4 in 1998 when they showed that the receptor was critical to the development of the nerves that control walking and other complex muscle functions. 

Subsequent studies showed that after spinal cord injury, the production of the EphA4 protein was increased and this protein was acting to stop severed nerve endings from regrowing through the injury site. 

Professor Boyd’s laboratory at QIMR, working with Professor Bartlett’s laboratory at QBI, then developed a “decoy” protein to block EphA4 function. 

Treatment with the EphA4 blocker has been used to improve recovery of function after spinal cord injury in animals.

“That first discovery back in 1998 opened up a clear path to a potential treatment for any diseases or injuries involving motor nerves,” Professor Boyd said.

“The idea would be to use the “decoy” treatment immediately after spinal cord injury to try to improve the patient’s recovery. 

“And as a neurologist or neurosurgeon will tell you, if you could improve function even marginally for a quadriplegic, you will make a massive difference to their life.” 

Chair of SpinalCure Australia, Ms Joanna Knott, says the news is promising.

“This news is extremely encouraging in the spinal cord injury field and we have followed the discoveries of the EphA4 receptor with interest.

“This team of researchers will certainly put Australia on the map, especially when the clinical trial begins.” 

In addition to NHMRC and ARC funding, this research was supported by funding from the Lisa Palmer Spinal Research Consortium and SpinalCure Australia.