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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
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At Rensselaer

BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING

Analyzing Nerve Injury

Deanna Thompson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer

Photo by Mark McCarty

Deanna Thompson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer, has received one of six New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research (NYSTAR) James D. Watson Investigator Program Awards. The $200,000 grant will support Thompson’s research, which focuses on the repair mechanisms of the nervous system.

The NYSTAR support will allow Thompson’s laboratory to investigate the roles Schwann cells play in the successful repair and guidance of nerve networks. This work could one day provide insight into new treatment strategies to help those who are paralyzed due to nerve injuries.

When an injury to a neuron occurs, the growing part of the neuron must navigate past the damaged site to its target to regain function. “Unfortunately, the cell often becomes misguided due to the trauma, the formation of scar tissue, and other reasons,” Thompson says.

Located in the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which connects the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) to other parts of the body, Schwann cells provide insulation and other support to neurons. Their presence allows many neurons in the PNS to repair themselves. Unlike the PNS, the neurons in the central nervous system lack the ability to mend themselves, in part because they lack the support of Schwann cells.

“Despite advances in surgical techniques, the outlook for a full functional recovery following nerve injury remains dismal,” says Thompson. “Our research seeks to discover the ways in which injured nerves can be repaired.”

Thompson’s long-term research goal is to use Schwann cells to develop a novel scaffold that will aid in nerve regeneration in both the peripheral and the central nervous system.

The James D. Watson Investigator initiative is part of the $22.5 million Generating Employment through New York State Science (Gen*NY*sis) program.

Thompson joined Rensselaer in September 2004, from the Center for Engineering in Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. She is part of an influx of new faculty in the past few years who are expanding Rensselaer’s research scope with their expertise in cellular, biochemical, and biophysical approaches to the life sciences.

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