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Research

Dr. Vanessa Boyce in the lab
Dr. Vanessa Boyce in the lab

Working Hard in the Lab

By: Brittany Liantonio

Name: Vanessa Boyce
Age: 39
Lab: Postdoctoral fellow at The State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook with Dr. Lorne Mendell
Focus: Electrophysiology of the spinal cord

Vanessa Boyce, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow working in the field of neurophysiology- a branch of physiology that studies how the nervous system functions. She is also one of two Consortium Associates from the Mendell laboratory in the Reeve Foundation's International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury.

Crustaceans to recovery
Boyce, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, was always very interested in biology. She originally wanted to be an ophthalmologist because her aunt had sarcoid uveitis, an inflammation of the part of the eye called the uvea. However, as she got older, she became more engrossed in research. "My interest in biomedical research superseded my interest in medicine," says Boyce.

She received her undergraduate in biology from Franciscan University in Ohio, her masters in biology from Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While attending Duquesne, Boyce began working with crabs.

"Crabs and crustaceans can regenerate entire limbs during successive molting periods," says Boyce. "When I started, I was interested in the genetics behind the ability of a crab to loose an entire claw and then the next molting season have one grow back."

Boyce then went on to Drexel where she shifted her concentration from the issue of regeneration to recovery of function.

Dr. Vanessa Boyce looking through a microscope
Dr. Vanessa Boyce looking through a microscope

Inside the lab
In the Consortium, Boyce is focusing on electrophysiology of the spinal cord and neurophysiology. She is doing experiments on rats, whose spinal cords are very similar to humans, using neurotrophic factors, also known as growth factors, to try to influence or restore stepping after injury. The two neurotrophic factors, or proteins, that she uses are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and Neurotrophin-3 (NT-3). BDNF helps to support the survival of neurons and growth of new neurons after injury. NT-3 is very similar to BDNF but has a different molecular structure which causes it to bind to different receptors and produce different cellular responses.

Boyce gives rats with spinal cord injuries either BDNF or NT-3 and then evaluates their locomotive performance. "Rats that have been given BDNF are able to step on the treadmill and over-ground" says Boyce. "They had recovered the ability to step by two weeks. The NT-3 treated rats can step as well, but only on the treadmill and only if we provide some stimulation at the base of the tail."

Aside from stepping, the rats that were treated with BDNF had much more excitable spinal cords. This means it takes lower currents to activate cells in the rats that were treated with BDNF than in the rats that were treated with NT-3. Boyce is now trying to understand how one protein can cause stepping and also change the excitability of the spinal cord.

From bench-to-bedside
Boyce is hopeful that what she is working on, as well as combinatorial approaches from other fields of science like bioengineering, will have promise of translation from basic research to clinical trials in the future. "There is a lot of research that shows benefit at the basic science level, but the translation to clinical usage takes time," says Boyce. "We want to make sure that what we are doing does not cause harm."

In the spinal cord injury field, occasionally the same experiments done on rats are performed on other animal models, but the same types of improvements do not occur. This is why, according to Boyce, it is very important to be thorough with the basic science before translating into clinical trials.

"You don't want to jump in with the clinical trail without the necessary scientific support and then have a detrimental effect on somebody," says Boyce. "We aren't crawling, but we move forward cautiously."

Dr. Vanessa Boyce doing research
Dr. Vanessa Boyce doing research

Support the cause
Boyce believes that right now the best treatment for people living with spinal cord injuries is physical therapy. "We can support the people who have spinal cord injuries by our contributions to organizations who really help them have a better life," says Boyce.

Boyce appreciates that the Reeve Foundation funds research and other activities that improve the lives of people living with spinal cord injuries, and that the Foundation makes it possible for her to interact with the spinal cord injured community. Foundation events, that include community members and scientists, make it possible for Boyce to see the potential significance that she can make in someone's life.

"It's very, very sobering to hear the stories of people who have injuries and what they've had to deal with," says Boyce. "It's also very encouraging for me. It's not just doing experiments on rats and seeing how we can fix and understand rats or cats or whatever the animal model is. It's about what the patients need and how can we address those needs to benefit them. If I was not involved in the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, I wouldn't have that opportunity."

In her spare time
When she can, Boyce loves participating in outdoor activities. She loves bike riding and is a member of a cycling team that is based in New Jersey. In the winter, Boyce is a member of a skiing club in New York City. "That's it," says Boyce, "I ski and I cycle."


Learn more
Learn all about the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury.
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  • Spinal Cord Injury Resource Center
  • Reeve Foundation Advocacy
Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders