Hope Happens Here: Neuroscientist Murray Blackmore

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on July 17, 2020 # Hope Happens Here: 25 Stories

Murray Blackmore, a neuroscientist at Marquette University, believes axon regeneration in spinal cord injuries is a puzzle that can be solved.Murray Blacmore

Damaged axons halt the delivery of messages from the brain to the body. Without the message, there can be no movement. And while embryonic axons can and do repair themselves, mature axons cannot. Therein lies both the problem and potential answer.

“What we have is a reverse engineering problem,” Blackmore says. “We know the cell can do this—it has just lost the ability. So, we have to figure out how it does it in the first place and restore that.”

With funding from the Reeve Foundation, Blackmore is working to identify and test the exact combination of proteins in an embryonic axon that, once placed in an injured mature axon, will activate growth. This is no simple task, but Blackmore remains ever aware of the larger goal: finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

“A lot of scientists get distracted by questions that are interesting but not necessarily on the path toward a cure,” he says. “I care about how things work, but I care more about getting the job done.”

Blackmore’s sense of purpose is undeniably personal.

When he was 13, a car accident devastated his family; his brother died, one of his sisters was severely brain damaged and his mother sustained a C4 spinal cord injury.

“My coping strategy was just to work and excel,” he says. “I had a knack for science, so I threw myself into school.”

He knew he wanted to make a difference in the world and first channeled his efforts toward the environment. But after receiving an undergraduate degree in environmental studies from Stanford University, Blackmore realized the challenges of that field revolved around political problems. Instead, he began thinking about how he could improve the world with scientific solutions.

The answer came to him at the end of a nine-month cycling trip from his hometown of St. Paul, MN to Santiago, Chile.

"It was in the Andes Mountains that everything came into focus,” he says. “I realized there actually was this scientific problem right in front of me and maybe I should work on that.”

Returning home, Blackmore centered his life around spinal cord injury research. After receiving a degree in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota, he completed his postdoctoral work at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and, in 2011, launched the Blackmore Lab at Marquette.

After 15 years of research, Blackmore is optimistic. His lab recently saw its best axon growth yet and is about to test new protein combinations identified using bioinformatic techniques with help from Marquette colleague Ishwariya Venkatesh.

“I feel like all the major pieces are in place,” Blackmore says, adding, “I think it's just a matter of time until we find that right cocktail.”