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University of Wisconsin - Madison Engineer Aims to Grow Spinal Tissue in Lab

By Silke Schmid

For a soldier who suffered a spinal cord injury on the battlefield, the promise of regenerative medicine is to fully repair the resulting limb paralysis. But that hope is still years from reality.

“When regenerative medicine started, its stated goal was to replace damaged body parts and restore their function,” says Randolph Ashton, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor of biomedical engineering. “But one of its less-anticipated applications is the ability to create human tissues and watch diseases occur in a dish, which is extremely powerful for developing new therapies.”

Not only powerful, but efficient. Studying diseases in lab-created tissue may help reduce the price tag — now roughly $1.8 billion — for bringing a new drug to market, which is one of the reasons Ashton received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for advancing tissue engineering of the human spinal cord. During the project’s five-year funding period, his lab in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery will fine-tune the technology for growing a neural tube, the developmental predecessor of the spinal cord, from scratch.

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