Spinal cord injury (SCI) often leads to a secondary problem of irregular blood pressure. That pressure problem then leads to an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Aaron Phillips has developed an innovative new technology that acts like a thermostat to regulate blood pressure in individuals with SCI.

The device that he and his team developed, which is currently being tested in clinical trials, uses implantable biotechnology that recapitulates the innate system for blood pressure stability that is damaged after SCI.

“I had a friend during my doctoral training who had previously had an SCI and it resulted in extremely unstable blood pressure that impacted his quality of life significantly. The blood pressure instability was really uncomfortable for him and stressful as he was aware that it increased his risk of heart attacks, stroke, and other medical emergencies.”

Dr. Aaron Phillips, Azrieli Future Leader in Canadian Brain Research

Dr. Phillips has received substantial additional support to develop the technology, including being a team member for a $36 million grant from the U.S. Military through the Department of Defense and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) intended to advance his technology. He also holds seven patents for his work in this area.

He has received many awards and recognitions, including New Investigator Awards from both the Canadian Association for Neuroscience and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, membership in the Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars, and the prestigious Science and PINS Prize in Neuromodulation from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (science.org).

What’s the impact?

Unstable blood pressure is a hidden consequence of spinal cord injury (SCI) and can be life-threatening. Although it affects fewer individuals, the cost of SCI to the health care system is significant, approximately equal to that for Alzheimer’s disease.

The technology that Dr. Phillips and his team developed to regulate blood pressure promises to reduce those costs while improving health and quality of life.

It is currently licensed to a publicly traded company, ONWARD Medical, which received a breakthrough designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. to commercialize the technology as a therapy for SCI and make it available to patients. The company is currently planning clinical trials with a collaborative team that spans Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

“The key message here is the importance of seed-based funding for up-and-coming scientists. In my case it was a stepping stone towards being able to research and develop a new therapy that’s now on the cusp of being implemented as a therapeutic for people living in the community. This is the dream of all medical scientists, and for good reason – that’s how you make an actual impact. That’s how you make an improvement to society.”

Dr. Aaron Phillips was selected to receive Brain Canada’s 2021 Turnbull-Tator Award for his paper entitled “Neuroprosthetic baroreflex controls hemodynamics after spinal cord injury”, a paper published in Nature.

More on Dr. Aaron Phillips’ research