From SCI to SCI Researcher
Interview with Dr Alina Garbuzov
We caught up with Dr Alina Garbuzov, a post-doctoral researcher at University California San Diego, to find out how sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI) concentrated her focus, the potential of stem cells in research and obstacles to translational treatments.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I had an amazing Biology teacher in high school that sparked my interest in science. I am a very curious person and love to be on the forefront of unanswered questions – I love to find out how things work.
I went on to study Biology at college and then undertook a Ph.D. researching ageing and stem cells. Four years into my Ph.D. studies everything started to fall into place.
Could you tell us about your injury and how that affected your work?
In 2015 I sustained a spinal cord injury after a climbing accident in Yosemite Park, which turned my world upside down.
There are definitely things I can’t do as easily as before, but my professor was great. He hired an undergrad to assist me and was very supportive and I was able to finish my Ph.D.
However, I made a really key change: I decided to work on something closer to my heart. I came across Mark Tuszynski's lab, where he combined stem cell research with SCI research. It was really a perfect fit.
Can you tell us simply about your area of research?
My lab focuses on the corticospinal tract (CST), a specific nerve pathway in the spinal cord which is essential for movement. Unfortunately, the CST is very poor at regeneration after injury, so we are researching methods to counteract that.
We are specifically investigating the use of stem cells to function as a bridge across the injury site to restore movement.
What are some of the obstacles to developing treatments?
While researchers have succeeded with mice many times, research going from the mouse model to a clinical trial often fails.
This is because the biology and the size of the spinal cord, and the way the CST promotes walking in animals is different.
Due to the huge amount of energy and funding required for a clinical trial, if it fails then it might be written off when in reality the treatment just needed some refinement. This is why further research is needed before we progress.
- Stem cells: Cells with the ability to become other cells in the body.Some stem cells, such as multi-potent stem cells are limited in what they can become. Others, like pluripotent stem cells can become any cell in the body
Does length of time after injury affect the outcome of the research?
My research is primarily on that question! I’m developing tools to allow us to understand the CST response to injury, how that is affected over time and whether the timelines are comparable between mice and humans.
The question of chronic injury is a difficult and crucial one. Given the systems of animal models, it’s difficult to find an ideal for long-term injury. The best way to answer that question convincingly is through clinical trials.
How long before meaningful therapies are available?
There are so many unknowns that it is difficult to say. I am someone who is very sensitive about scientific hype-machines: over-promising and underdelivering.
We’re always thinking about translational applications – we’re not just wondering around learning things for the sake of it. It’s always with the goal of finding treatments for patients.
However, there’s a lot of excitement in our lab because we’re working towards our first clinical trial for stem cell transplantation.
Any specific plans for 2023?
I go mountain-biking with a handcycle, and as there are a lot of off-road trails in San Diego I plan to do a lot more of that with my partner and friends. I also enjoy wave-skiing – a cross between a kayak and a surfboard – so will do that a lot!
Generally trying to balance staying healthy while working to avoid wearing myself out pretty fast. Otherwise I don’t have the energy or ability to do either.
Something I didn’t appreciate as an able-bodied person is how much work it takes anyone with a chronic condition to get to the same level of function as an able-bodied person can. Being a wheelchair user is like being a part-time job.
Do you have a message for Spinal Research?
I really appreciate when any non-profit serving the SCI community connects the patient community with the science community. I think that communication is really vital, so that people have an accurate idea of what is out there and to create informed individuals.