Pfaff Brings Expertise in Motor Neuron Development to the Foundation's Efforts on Behalf of People living with Spinal Cord Injury
|Photo by Denis Poroy/AP, (c)HHMI
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation today (August 18, 2008) announced it has expanded the work of its International Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury to include a focus on the study of stem cells in injury and repair. Samuel L. Pfaff, PhD of The Salk Institute, who has demonstrated expertise in stem cell biology and spinal cord expertise, has joined the Consortium as a Principal Investigator. Additionally, the laboratory of Fred H. Gage, PhD, also at The Salk, will reorient more exclusively to stem cell research, with an emphasis on human embryonic stem cells. Dr. Gage will also oversee a stem cell core laboratory that will serve as infrastructure for the research network.
The Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury works to promote structural repair and functional recovery in the acutely and chronically injured spinal cord. Its scientists pursue this mission through collaborative research across many international laboratories that focuses on optimizing the intrinsic capacity of the adult nervous system to repair and remodel itself and eliciting robust regenerative responses after injury.
"Dr. Pfaff's expertise in the embryonic development of the spinal cord will add significant value to our research enterprise," says Susan Howley, executive vice president for research at the Reeve Foundation. "The spinal cord is so complex that the role of stem cells in repair and regeneration has to be considered within the context of what we know about the uninjured and injured spinal cord. The Consortium is a perfect environment within which to do that."
Find out more about our stem cell initiative.
The decision to deploy a stem cell initiative under the aegis of its Research Consortium was made by the Reeve Foundation as a result of a workshop of international stem-cell experts it sponsored last year. The Foundation asked the participants, scientists and clinicians, to make strategic recommendations about how to invest research dollars to move the field of injury repair and regeneration forward. Following submission of a workshop report to the Foundation, the Board's Research Planning Committee worked for several months to develop a stem cell initiative for consideration by the full Board of Directors. It was approved by the Board late last year.
At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Dr. Pfaff heads the Gene Expression Laboratory. There, he focuses on the embryonic development of motor neurons—cells that transmit signals from the brain or spinal cord to muscles throughout the body to generate movement.
Specifically, the Pfaff lab has been focusing on several areas of investigation:
- Stem cells and fate choices: How do stem cells "choose" from among a variety of fates and acquire their specific identities as motor neurons?
- Axon guidance: How do motor axons—the slender projections from nerve cells—travel from the brain or spinal cord to their target destinations throughout the body?
- Locomotor circuitry: How does the wiring process develop, and how is it orchestrated in such a way as to enable us to walk?
Dr. Pfaff and his colleagues have been seeking answers to these questions via mouse and human embryonic stem cell research. Further, they have been using mouse genetics to study the underpinnings of the neural network known as the central pattern generator (CPG), which generates the coordinated and rhythmic firing of motor neurons needed for walking.
Dr. Pfaff has a long history with the Reeve Foundation, as a member of its Science Advisory Council, which oversees the Individual Grants Program. He received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and conducted postdoctoral study at Vanderbilt University and Columbia University. He has received a McKnight Scholar Award in Neurobiology, a March of Dimes Basil O'Connor Scholar Award, and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow Award. Recently named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, Dr. Pfaff is a strong proponent of cross-disciplinary collaboration in research, an approach shared by the Reeve Foundation.