Shining a (near-infrared) light on spinal cord injury treatment

15 December 2020

When someone experiences a spinal cord injury, the first week is a critical window of time to preserve as much neurologic function as possible—yet a major gap exists in patient treatment.

There is no way for doctors to know what is actually happening at the injured site.

Acutely injured patients undergo urgent surgery, then their blood pressure is increased to try to improve blood flow to the damaged area and prevent the injury from spreading to surrounding spinal cord tissues. Because doctors can’t measure oxygenation and blood flow at the injury site in the spinal cord, they are left to use a ‘one-size-fits-all’ protocol for blood pressure management, rather than an individualized approach customized to the needs of each patient.

Dr. Brian Kwon, Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of British Columbia, ICORD Clinical Research Director, Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Injury, and attending spine surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), aims to change that.

Thanks in part to joint funding between the MSFHR Innovation to Commercialization (I2C) program and the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, and in partnership with the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, Dr. Kwon and his research team are continuing to advance a novel technology called a near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) sensor that allows doctors to measure blood and oxygen delivery.

The device works by shining a near-infrared light into the spinal cord. The amount of light absorbed indicates the amount of blood and oxygen being delivered to the tissue.


Dr. Brian Kwon

“The really important thing to highlight is we are tackling something that is truly a huge knowledge gap in the way we treat spinal cord injury patients,” said Dr. Kwon. “We felt this had real commercial potential as a tool that spine surgeons and other doctors treating spinal cord patients could use because it tackles a very fundamental problem in spinal cord injury care.”

In Phase I of the I2C award, Dr. Kwon and his team, which includes MSFHR Scholar and ICORD Principal Investigator Dr. Babak Shadgan, built the NIRS sensor and tested it in animal studies. Now, his team is moving on to Phase II and undertaking the necessary developmental and technical steps to refine the device so that they can initiate commercialization through clinical trials and confirm the device works in human patients.

This set of steps includes developing the clinical prototype and obtaining certifications to document electrical safety, mechanical integrity, and sterility, in addition to conducting necessary confirmatory animal studies. If all goes well, by the end of the 24-month period, Dr. Kwon hopes to have two patients enrolled in clinical trials at Vancouver General Hospital.

“The MSFHR I2C program and partnership with Praxis and the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation has enabled us to undertake the very necessary activities to develop the technology and move it towards commercialization. These kinds of activities are not typically supported through standard competitive research grant funding,” said Dr. Kwon. “It is such an important award because the steps you need to tackle to move it along this pathway for commercialization are very different than the activities you complete to get a research study done for a peer-reviewed journal article.”

Once the clinical trials are underway and sufficient data have been collected, Dr. Kwon’s team will be in a position to look for an industry partner who can transition the NIRS sensor through the commercialization pathway – and eventually make the device available to doctors treating patients with acute spinal cord injury.

Praxis Spinal Cord Institute partnered with the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) on this award, with both Praxis and MSFHR equally contributing funds towards Phase II of the award over its two-year term that started September 2020.

“Partnerships like this with the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research are vital to Praxis in achieving our mission of a world without paralysis after spinal cord injury,” explained Praxis CEO Bill Barrable. “Through the Innovation to Commercialization Award, we are proud to support Dr. Brian Kwon’s work to accelerate research technologies to the clinical stage and shorten the time when they can then improve health outcomes for people with spinal cord injury.”

In addition to receiving the I2C award, Dr. Kwon is also co-principal investigator of an international research team that recently received a $48 million grant from the United States Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) for a five-year project that aims to improve long-term outcomes for patients with spinal cord injury.

The MSFHR Innovation to Commercialization (I2C) Program supports researchers to advance their discoveries or inventions towards practical application, resulting in products or technologies that improve health outcomes and enrich BC’s health innovation ecosystem.

Strong partnerships are integral to fostering world-class health research in BC. We invite organizations to join us in co-funding awards that optimize our collective investments in health research. Together, we can invest in people and knowledge to achieve common goals and create new opportunities. Learn more about being an MSFHR partner.

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