Working Hard in the LabBy: Brittany Liantonio
Name: Vanessa Boyce
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
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.
Inside the lab
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.
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."
Support the cause
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
Learn all about the Reeve Foundation International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury.