Texas A&M University biologist Dr. Jennifer Dulin has been selected to receive the 2021 Jerry Johnston Andrew Award for Spinal Cord Research recognizing related excellence and potential progress for the nearly 300,000 Americans currently afflicted with spinal cord injury (SCI).
The $10,000 award is presented annually by The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with neurotrauma and neurodegenerative disease. The award honors the memory of “JJ” Andrew, a Houston native with spinal cord injury who served on the TIRR Foundation Board of Directors and dedicated her life to a variety of community and service-oriented causes.
September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, approximately 296,000 people in the U.S. are living with paralysis from SCI, while nearly 18,000 new injuries are reported annually. Individuals with SCI incur up to $1 million in healthcare and living costs in the first year alone and upwards of $5 million in lifetime expenses. In addition to a reduced life expectancy, many patients suffer from lifelong neurological dysfunction, including paralysis and chronic pain for which very few treatment options are available. These debilitating injuries cost the U.S. healthcare system $40.5 billion annually.
Dulin, an assistant professor and TIRR Foundation Fellow in the Texas A&M Department of Biology since 2017, credits organizations like the TIRR Foundation and the high-quality research they make possible as critical catalysts to the advancement of clinical and translational research to improve quality of life for those living with SCI.
“The TIRR Foundation has a singular mission — to support high-impact, cutting-edge research that will lead to new treatments for spinal cord injury,” Dulin said. “I am excited to be working with other scientists at Texas A&M on projects to develop new regenerative therapies.”
A 2005 Texas A&M biochemistry graduate, Dulin earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2012 and completed postdoctoral research in spinal cord injury at the University of California, San Diego, prior to returning to her alma mater, where she is an affiliated member of the Texas A&M Spinal Cord Initiative and the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience. She was recruited to Texas A&M along with three additional professors — including fellow biologist Dr. Dylan McCreedy — as part of an SCI cluster hire made possible in partnership with the TIRR Foundation, where she and McCreedy are among the more than 120 researchers involved in Mission Connect, a collaborative neurotrauma research project focused on halting progression of damage in patients with brain or spinal cord injury. In addition, she is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and the Texas Brain and Spine Institute.
“I am humbled to be recognized with such a prestigious honor,” Dulin said. “My Ph.D. advisor, the late Dr. Ray Grill, received this award in 2012, so it is especially meaningful for me to receive the Jerry Johnston Andrew Award almost 10 years later.”
Dulin’s research investigates molecular and cellular approaches to restoring neurological function after spinal cord injury. Her laboratory focuses primarily on cell transplantation therapy, including exploratory strategies to replace lost nerve cells, or neurons, with neural progenitor cells — immature cells capable of regrowing new tissue.
This past January, Dulin received her first career single-investigator R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health awarded through the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in support of her group’s ongoing efforts to understand how neural progenitor cell grafts synaptically and functionally integrate into the injured nervous system. Another project led by one of her Ph.D. students, Prakruthi Amar Kumar ’20, has shown that “silencing” the activity of nociceptive, or pain-signaling, neurons using a technology called chemogenetics can improve long-term sensory and motor outcomes after spinal cord injury in rats — a promising development with potential implications for new treatments for people living with chronic pain after spinal cord injury.
In addition, the Dulin Lab is nearing completion of a study investigating the effects of biological sex on graft/host interactions following neural progenitor cell transplantation. The work, led by senior biology major Michael Pitonak ’22, has determined that female mice immunologically “reject” male donor spinal cord cells, resulting in increased numbers of “killer” T cells in transplanted tissue months after transplantation. This work has implications for the design of clinical cell transplantation therapies for SCI and suggests that the biological sex of donor stem cells may be an important factor in determining whether a human cell graft is successful.
“Jen is an incredible colleague, mentor and scientist,” said Dr. Alex C. Keene, professor and head of Texas A&M Biology. “In a relatively short period of time, she has built a lab that is positioned to advance our understanding of spinal cord injury and repair for years to come. Her collaborative approach to science has been central to building such a strong neuroscience group within the department and the broader community here at Texas A&M.”
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