Stem Cell Research

Stem Cell Research

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any of the body's cell types, and so offer tremendous promise for treating many degenerative diseases and nervous system injuries. In the case of spinal cord injury, embryonic stem cells could eventually be used to replace nerve cells.

In the early days of stem cell research, RIRC scientists collaborated with biotech companies to develop techniques to differentiate human stem cells into cell types that would be useful for transplantation and then tested their effectiveness in improving function in rodent models of SCI. These early studies were the foundation for the world’s first FDA-approved clinical trial of a therapy based on human embryonic stem cells and the world’s first clinical trial of stem cell therapy for chronic spinal cord injury. Both these trials are ongoing.

Now, RIRC scientists are testing approaches that use stem cells to create bridges across injury sites and re-establish function in the injured spinal cord to reverse paralysis.

Stem Cell Researcher

Oswald Steward, Ph.D.

Oswald Steward is known for his research on molecular mechanisms of nerve cell regeneration in the injured spinal cord. His approach combines interventions to modify gene expression with the use of stem cell transplants to restore connections that were damaged by injury.

Dr. Steward's Profile

Regeneration to Reverse Paralysis

Spinal Cord Regeneration

A spinal cord injury breaks the connections between the brain and the spinal cord that control the ability to move, to feel touch, and to control bowel, bladder and sexual function.

All scientists agree that the best way to restore function after spinal cord injury is to find ways to regenerate the connections that are broken. Indeed, inducing regeneration has been the holy grail for research for more than a century. RIRC scientists, working in collaboration with scientists at other universities, have achieved major breakthroughs in experimental animals, establishing that regeneration of connections can be achieved through interventions that are plausible therapeutic candidates. Now, we are working diligently to move these therapeutic candidates from the lab to the clinic.

Oswald Steward

Dr. Steward's Lab

In a bi-coastal effort with Dr. Zhigang He at the Children’s hospital at Harvard, Dr. Steward’s lab seeks to develop ways to promote regeneration of the connections that control our ability to move voluntarily. It is the first time in history we have seen impressive regeneration on the other side of an injury site.

Dr. Steward's Profile

Controlling Bladder Function

Controlling Bladder Function

The bladder (muscle) has to contract while the external urethral sphincter (valve) has to open. This simultaneous action is required for the natural expulsion of the bladder to occur.

Dr. Chang’s expertise is in pharmacological modulation of bladder function following spinal cord injury (SCI). Her studies focus on rodent models, and the control of a muscle called the external urethral sphincter. To void the bladder in a normal way requires that two physiological actions occur simultaneously. The bladder (which is actually a muscle) has to contract and at the same time, the external urethral sphincter, which is basically a biological valve, has to open. These two actions have to occur in “synergy” (which means together). People who have suffered a spinal cord injury often suffer from a condition called “dys-synergia”, in which there is bladder contraction triggered by a full bladder at the same time that the sphincter (the valve) doesn’t open. This causes a pathological increase in pressure within the bladder, which pushes urine back up into the kidneys. All of this greatly increases the chances for kidney damage and urinary tract infections. Thus, figuring out how to control the external urethral sphincter is of great importance.

Harriet Chang

Dr. Chang's Lab

Dr. Chang is currently funded by NIH/NIDDK to investigate the urethral function by using spinal cord epidural stimulation (SCS) in the rodent model of SCI. SCS is a well-developed and widely used technique on neuromodulation, especially for neuropathic pain and the recent studies of locomotion.

Dr. Chang's Profile

Music Glove Used to Foster Dexterity


Research is currently being conducted using the MusicGlove to help foster dexterity and measure movement for data measurements in those suffering from spinal cord injury and stroke.

The MusicGlove helps people improve finger dexterity by playing a music-based game similar to the popular video game GuitarHero. This device is being commercialized by Flint Rehabilitation Devices, an Orange County start-up company founded by UCI students Nizan Friedman and Dan Zondervan, with the support of small business innovation research grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Kelli Sharp

iMOVE lab

Kelli Sharp, DPT is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Dance in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UCI. Dr. Sharp’s research embodies two pillars. The first pillar focuses on injury prevention and wellness for dancers using motion capture system and applying methods of analysis to determine the relationship of motion in space to reduce risk of injuries. The second pillar focuses on the development of novel technologies to advance rehabilitation strategies for individuals with neurological disorders by incorporating tools such as motion capture systems and functional magnetic resonance with dance/movement therapy.

“For the first time in history there is legitimate OPTIMISM that neurological damage can be controlled and repaired.”

-- Dr. Oswald Steward