Bond University PhD graduate, Dr Rita Juneja this week had the chance to meet up with Perry Cross to discuss the findings of her four-year research project and what it could mean for Perry and the 12,000 Australians currently living with spinal cord injuries.
The Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation (PCSRF), which was established in 2005 to fund medical research to find a cure for paralysis, provided $90,000 to sponsor Rita’s PhD research project into spinal and nervous system damage.
An Alumnus of Bond University himself, Perry Cross first established a relationship with Bond’s Research Unit in November 2007, after hearing of its research into the regeneration and repair of damaged nervous systems.
Perry became a profoundly disabled quadriplegic as a result of a sporting accident when he was 19.
"I remember lying there thinking ‘my life has just changed forever’," Perry said.
Dr Juneja began her PhD at Bond University’s Health Sciences & Medicine faculty in 2009 and graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy degree on 12 October 2013; and no-one was more delighted to congratulate Rita on her graduation last weekend than Perry.
“Rita’s research project was our Foundation’s first PhD scholarship and it’s been a massive learning curve for us. We’re very excited about her research and the collaboration that’s happening worldwide in this area to help find a cure for paralysis,” Perry said.
Dr Juneja’s project investigated the ability of the adult zebrafish to repair its central nervous system following damage, in contrast to adult mammals, which have a very limited capacity for regeneration or spontaneous regrowth.
The research identified key factors associated with the regeneration abilities of the central nervous system of these two species. Its aim was to provide a greater understanding of the mechanisms involved and how this knowledge may assist in the development of therapeutic strategies, aimed at repairing the injured brain and spinal cord in humans.
Dr Juneja said the research project had been very challenging, but incredibly rewarding.
“When I started my research, we had to start with the basics. There weren’t even any methods developed in the area of growing adult zebrafish cells, so my first study focused on growing these cells,” she said.
“When I grew my first cells, it was a major moment. This was followed by some very important learnings on neuronal cell growth.”
Zebrafish can regenerate cells and repair lower-vertebrae damage in just seven days, due to a lower level of inhibitory molecules than human beings.
Rita is currently researching and teaching at the Satit Bilingual School of Rangsit University in Bangkok and the University’s Faculty of Science and Education. She plans to continue her research, and hopefully encourage her students to conduct further research into this area also.
“The focus of future research will be on understanding which molecules are blocking humans from regeneration, finding a way to unblock them, and then converting this research into medical therapies, with the ultimate goal being a cure for paralysis,” she said.
“I am very grateful to Perry and the Board of The Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. Without their financial support, and the support of Bond University, I could never have bought the materials I needed, or had access to the technologies I required to perform my research.
“In addition to the world-class research capabilities I have gained through this scholarship, working for Perry - a person who cares deeply and is directly affected by the research I’m doing - has taught me something very powerful, and that’s the importance of giving back to the community.”
Perry said the research that is taking place in Australia, and on the Gold Coast in particular, is on par with other world-leading research underway in Europe and the US.
“It’s great to see cutting-edge research like Rita’s being done here at Bond University and knowing that every day we are one step closer to developing a cure for paralysis,” Perry said.
“We are very excited about where Rita’s knowledge will take her and us in the future. I’m grateful Rita chose to work with us and hope that one day we can evolve her research into something extraordinary to get people with spinal injuries walking again.
“Ten years ago there was no hope, but now thanks to the research of Rita and others here in Australia and abroad, there is hope. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.”
Just last week, Perry was named the ‘Cure Warrior Advocate of The Year’ at the Working to Walk Symposium in Boston, USA.
Since his accident Perry has led an inspiring journey, completing a university degree, writing books, travelling the world meeting people like Christopher Reeve, speaking on spinal injuries & inspiring others to get the most out of life despite personal challenges.
In the past three years PCSRF have funded peer reviewed scientific research projects at Bond University and Griffith University to help find a cure for paralysis, funded collaboration activities to enable entities around the world to work together and unite to fight paralysis; as well as raising awareness about prevention of spinal cord injury.
PCSRF is running a fundraising campaign next month called SIP Week and Perry is urging all Gold Coasters to get behind it. SIP stands for Spinal Injury Project and Perry is busy enlisting everyday Aussies, sporting celebrities, media personalities and government officials to sip every beverage they consume for a week through a straw, in conjunction with Spinal Injury Awareness Week (November 10-16, 2013).
For more information on SIP Week, to register or donate visit www.sipweek.com, or to learn more about the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation, go to www.pcsrf.org.au .