Innovative researcher from University of Calgary receives the 2021 Turnbull-Tator Award in Spinal Cord Injury and Concussion Research

Since 2001, in honour of Barbara Turnbull, Brain Canada and the Barbara Turnbull Foundation have been partnering to support the need for exceptional research in the area of spinal cord and/or brain injury to improve the lives of those affected. Co-sponsored by the foundations, the Turnbull-Tator Award in Spinal Cord Injury and Concussion Research recognizes an outstanding publication by a Canadian researcher in the field.

“Barbara was an advocate devoted to bringing attention to the importance of recognizing and funding excellence in Canadian-based research in the areas of spinal cord injury,” says Gary Goldberg, a director of the Barbara Turnbull Foundation for Spinal Cord Research. “It is a privilege to continue her legacy through the Barbara Turnbull Foundation in her honour. “

This year, Dr. Aaron Phillips from the University of Calgary was selected to receive the 2021 Turnbull-Tator Award for his paper entitled “Neuroprosthetic baroreflex controls hemodynamics after spinal cord injury”, a paper published in Nature.

Selected based on the publication’s innovation and originality, impact of the research and its findings, and quality of the research, Dr. Phillips is being awarded a $50,000 grant to continue his research on the treatment of spinal cord and brain injury.

Spinal cord injury leads to blood pressure instability that threatens survival, impairs neurological recovery, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduces quality of life. This occurs because the brain can no longer activate the sympathetic nervous system, preventing the blood pressure stabilizing

system, known as the baroreflex, from effectively functioning.

“In the published paper, we used epidural electrical stimulation to activate and control the sympathetic nervous system in a closed-loop. This system functions as a ‘neuroprosthetic baroreflex’,” explains Dr. Phillips. “With the new fundamental knowledge, we generated regarding how the nervous system functions, we developed clinical-grade epidural electrical stimulation hardware targeting a new region within the spinal cord that we discovered houses the key circuits responsible for blood pressure control. We then engineered hardware to recapitulate the natural dynamics of the sympathetic nervous system that are lost after spinal cord injury.”

In 2020, Dr. Phillips was awarded a Future Leader in Canadian Brain Research grant from Brain Canada– Future Leaders is an early-career program that provides seed funding to budding researchers with enormous potential.

“Dr. Phillips winning this prestigious award is a great example of why it’s so important to invest in the next generation of neuroscientists. It demonstrates how innovative Canadian researchers can be when given the resources,” says Dr. Viviane Poupon, President and CEO of Brain Canada. “We are proud to be funding Dr. Phillips and are excited to now be seeing the global impact of his research.”

Dr. Phillips and his team are now developing new complimentary devices, further understanding the basic biology of the sympathetic nervous system and completing a series of clinical trials to make the neuroprosthetic baroreflex a widely available therapy.

“This award is a terrific honour as it acknowledges my research program as being amongst the top spinal cord injury research groups. This work included a series of preclinical studies, and we successfully translated our findings to a human in only four years since starting my research program – and this is truly only the beginning!” says Dr. Phillips.  “We are poised to make a giant leap forward in terms of how spinal cord injury is understood and managed. The plan now is to work with cutting-edge companies to ensure our research findings don’t just stay in the lab, but in fact change the lives of people in the community living with spinal cord injury.”

To Learn more about Dr. Phillips’ research, watch this video.

This project has been made possible with the financial support of the Barbara Turnbull Foundation for Spinal Cord Research and the Canada Brain Research Fund (CBRF), an innovative arrangement between the Government of Canada (through Health Canada) and Brain Canada Foundation. To date, Health Canada has invested over $130 million through the CBRF which has been matched by Brain Canada Foundation and its donors and partners.