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Dr. Hur in the lab in front of a microscope
Dr. Hur in the lab in front of a microscope.

Regenerating for Cures

By Brittany Liantonio

Name: Eun-Mi Hur
Age: 35
Lab: Postdoctoral Fellow at John Hopkins University School of Medicine with Dr. Fengquan Zhou
Focus: Axon growth and regeneration

Eun-Mi Hur, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow working in the field of neuroscience. She received a two year individual research grant from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation in December 2009. Her project focuses on axon growth and regeneration. She is also on her way to becoming an independent researcher and leading her own lab.

From bench-to-bedside
The importance of translating basic science to active clinical trials really became a focal point of Hur's after the 2010 Reeve Foundation Spinal Cord Symposium for scientists, clinicians, and community members. It was the first time she had interacted with so many people living with spinal cord injuries and their families. It was there that Hur realized the potential impact that the science she was doing in the lab could have on people living with spinal cord injuries.

"I knew that there were spinal cord injured people, obviously, but that was my first time encountering so many people and families living with the devastating consequences of spinal cord injuries," says Hur. "That made me think. It's not just the science and the fun of science; it's the consequences of what I do. That was a very important moment for me."

An image of a nerve cell that Hur took under microscope
An image of a nerve cell that Hur took under microscope.

Starting at the beginning
Hur, originally from South Korea, wanted to be a scientist since the third or fourth grade. "I never thought about other paths," says Hur, "even though I didn't have any idea of what a scientist was." She received her undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in biochemistry and cell biology from Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea (POSTECH). She chose POSTECH because it is one of the best research-oriented universities in South Korea.

Even though her Ph.D. and training was not in neuroscience, Hur became interested in the field by reading articles and doing research. While speaking about her interest in how the nervous system develops, Hur says, "I was just fascinated by how a neuron (nerve cell), that doesn't have a eye and doesn't have an ear, can find its path, without making any mistakes, to eventually build up the most complex system, which is the human brain."

Living in the moment
With the research grant that Hur received from the Foundation, she is working on axon regeneration and a specific structure called a growth cone which drives the axon. Axon regeneration is the act of trying to restore, repair, or re-grow neurons that have been damaged. If axon regeneration is successful, it could lead to a recovery of nerve function after a spinal injury has occurred.

When a spinal cord is damaged, the cellular environment at the site of the injury is not conducive for neurons to repair themselves. Unlike many researchers in her field, who are concentrating heavily on identifying the factors that inhibit axon growth in the environment, Hur is focusing on intrinsic growth mechanisms of the neurons themselves, rather than extrinsic factors in the environment.

"I am focusing on how we can boost the ability of a neuron to grow axons better despite the fact that they are surrounded by a hostile environment," says Hur.

She is also interested in a protein called nonmuscle myosin II (NM II) which functions as a brake inside the neuron that prevents it from growing axons rapidly. "We reasoned that if we could block the function of the brake, we might be able to accelerate the rate of axon growth and promote axon regeneration," says Hur.

An image of a growth cone that Hur took under microscope
An image of a growth cone that Hur took under microscope.

Working for cures
According to Hur, the field has made great strides in promoting axon regeneration in the past three or four years. Due to the progress that is taking place in the field, it is now clear to Hur that a combinatorial approach will be needed to lead to improvements for those living with spinal cord injuries. "Hopefully in the near future we might be able to gain knowledge from other fields of science and combine them to eventually promote axon regeneration," says Hur.

"For the axon regeneration field, although there are there foundations that support this kind of research, fellowship from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is thought to be one of the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships," says Hur. "The Reeve Foundation is among the few that is really dedicated to find ways to promote axon regeneration."

Outside the lab
When not working, Hur spends time with her husband of nine years, Byoung Lee, also a postdoctoral fellow at John Hopkins, and their son, seven-year-old Jin Lee. She also enjoys reading. Her favorite writer is a South Korean author named Wan-suh Park. "I plan to travel, but I often end up being in the lab," says Hur.

Learn more
Learn all about the Reeve Foundation's Individual Research Grants Program.
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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders