Spinal Cord Injury research

Interview with Dr Anna Leonard - University of Adelaide

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Dr Anna Leonard is a research active Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Anatomy and Pathology, Adelaide Medical School (AMS). After completion of her PhD in December 2012 (Dean’s commendation; University Doctoral Medal), she undertook local (UofA; Neil Sachse Foundation Fellowship) and international (University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA) post-doctoral training, gaining research expertise in various animal models of traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI).

In 2016, she returned to Adelaide (RAH ECR Fellowship) to begin establishing a novel porcine model of traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI), a major arm of her research program. In 2017, Dr Leonard was appointed a continuing academic and began further establishing her research within Adelaide. She currently heads the Spinal Cord Injury Research group in the AMS and has established a national profile within the neurotrauma field as an emerging early career researcher.

With 300-400 new cases of SCI in Australia each year, resulting in a financial burden of >$2billion annually and even greater personal loss, there is a real need for research within this field to generate meaningful improved outcomes for people living with SCI.

Dr Leonard's research is focused on understanding the acute outcomes following SCI, particularly surrounding the relationship between oedema, haemorrhage and raised intrathecal pressure (ITP), and the role of neuroinflammation in both acute and chronic outcomes.

Why did you pursue your career in spinal cord injury research?

"In the 3rd year of my undergraduate degree, I was taught by some amazing researchers within the neurotrauma field (Prof Bob Vink & Prof Corinna Van Den Heuvel). Sadly, at the same time a close friend of mine was involved in a car accident, sustained a traumatic brain injury, and died. Studying neurotrauma became hard because it was now deeply personal. However, I was also exposed to the amazing research my lecturers were doing within the field, and it clicked for me that through research I could be involved in developing novel treatments that could potentially save lives.

"I could see the impact research has, and I have never looked back. I feel honoured and privileged to have been involved in the development of a pharmacological treatment that may reduce mortality and improve outcomes after traumatic brain injury early in my career. I hope I can similarly develop something impactful for spinal cord injury through my current research."

Why are you passionate about this – was there something in your life that led you to this specific area?

"Whilst I began my research career within traumatic brain injury, an opportunity to extend my knowledge into traumatic spinal cord injury arose and I could see the need for further research within this field.

"The risk of dying after a traumatic spinal cord injury is comparatively lower than traumatic brain injury, however, this presents its own unique problems. Individuals living with spinal cord injury experience a range of functional deficits, from motor and sensory dysfunction, to bladder, bowel, and sexual dysfunction, as well as more chronic outcomes such as neuropathic pain and cognitive decline.

"This represents a huge impact on an individual’s quality of life and there is a clear need for research focused on improving outcome following spinal cord injury. Throughout my career it is the interactions I have had with people living with spinal cord injury that have both inspired me and provided me with the motivation to keep going."

Please explain your current research – what are you looking at and why?

"I am excited by the variety of my current research. We have projects characterising the acute outcomes following spinal cord injury, specifically tissue swelling and inflammation, and how we could potentially modulate these to improve outcomes.

"The interventions range from pharmacological to surgical and more recently peripheral electrical stimulation. In addition, we have recently started investigating some of the more chronic outcomes experienced by people living with spinal cord injury such as neuropathic pain and cognitive decline.

"These outcomes are complex, and we’re predominantly interested in understanding how the acute injury environment could impact on these delayed outcomes, that often manifest in anatomical regions distant to the site of injury."

What are the current statistics for SCI in Australia?

  • 300-400 new cases annually with 15,000+ individuals livings with SCI in Australia
  • The greatest cause of traumatic SCI is motor vehicle accidents (39%) and falls (39%)
  • Males have a greater incidence (80%) compared to females
  • Incidence is greatest within ages 15-24, 35-34 (39 cases each) and 45-54 (40 cases), demonstrating that SCI can affect people of any age.
  • Over half of all SCIs occur at the cervical level.
  • The total cost associated with SCI in Australia is approximately $2 billion annually.

Ryan Dorrian - Honours Candidate at the University of Adelaide

Ryan Dorrian is an Honours candidate at the University of Adelaide. His research is focused on Spinal cord injury, titled ‘Characterising the neuroinflammatory response following SCI’.
Ryan presented at the NRF Researcher presentations event held on Wednesday 23 September 2020.
Watch the video below.

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