Dr. Piotr Walczak, Professor at the Department of Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at the University of Maryland Baltimore, uses interdisciplinary approaches to study neurological disorders and advance therapeutics by implementing image-guided neuro-interventions.
There are more than 600 neurological disorders that pose a major global burden. Dr. Walczak and his lab study several of these disorders including rare ones, such as Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease (PMD). The prognosis for people with PMD is poor, with the most severe cases suffering progressive neurological deterioration until death. PMD results from abnormal development of the myelin sheath that serves as the insulating layer of nerve cells. The destruction of protective insulation, a process known as demyelination, is also observed in more frequent neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis or stroke, and this process leads to nerve cell malfunction and disease onset.
To address this issue, Dr. Walczak’s strategy is to use stem cell transplantation to replace the exact cells responsible for producing the myelin sheath, known as oligodendrocytes. Dr. Walczak describes how support from the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF) “was instrumental in turning our concept of oligodendrocyte replacement strategy into a vibrant research program”.
Using PMD mouse models, the Walczak lab has demonstrated that transplantation of stem cells destined to become oligodendrocytes has a positive therapeutic effect. Nevertheless, the translation of stem cell therapy is contingent upon overcoming the differences between the brains of mice and humans, as well as the challenge of effective cell delivery. Dr. Walczak innovatively tackles this challenge by performing image-guided intra-arterial administration of stem cells. Intra-arterial injection alone allows for the broad distribution of cells. However, coupling to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows for targeted cell delivery to the brain and real-time visualization. This technique is critical for clinical translation, holding the power to accelerate therapy for people suffering from such a debilitating disease.
Dr. Walczak credits MSCRF for years of support and their aid in the removal of many obstacles “to the effective use of stem cells in patients suffering from devastating neurological disorders”.