When they were 15, Tim O’Shea and his friend Ben Harvey were keen rugby players. But a week before his sixteenth birthday Ben was tackled during a game and his spinal cord was injured, rendering him a quadriplegic.
The tragedy has inspired Tim, a QUT biomedical engineering graduate, to go into spinal cord repair research – in a big way.
Tim has been awarded a $150,000 General Sir John Monash Award for postgraduate study at an overseas university for three years.
In July he will head to one of three top university research centres in the US that are making giant strides in repairing the spinal cord after injury. It is research he hopes will develop improved outcomes for Ben and all spinal cord injury patients.
“In this particular interdisciplinary research area, biomedical engineers work collaboratively with scientists and clinicians in an attempt to design and develop new therapies that are effective and clinically relevant for patients,” Tim said.
“My area of interest is tissue engineering and in particular focussing on the potential of biomaterials, such as biodegradable polymers and the use of nanotechnology in neural research.
“I will be looking at an implant that would be able to direct the controlled release of suitable bioactive molecules that can provide the right biological signals to the injury site to stimulate spinal cord repair.
“As there is no satisfactory treatment option currently available for spinal cord injury this research represents a potential future solution for patients.”
Tim said early work in the field had shown promising results.
“However, there is a lot of hard work still to do before we see the potential of this therapy for patient use.”
Tim is applying to a collaborative MIT-Harvard University facility, the Georgia Institute of Technology and John Hopkins University to do his PhD.
“Each university is looking at different strategies to spinal cord repair using tissue engineering but all have the same common holistic approach to research,” he said.
Tim said his friend Ben was told when he first broke his neck that he wouldn’t regain much function of his limbs following his accident.
“But he is improving all time and my research I hope will lead to further improvements for him in the future.”
Tim was one of eight recipients of the General Sir John Monash awards. His research will ultimately benefit the 9000 people affected by spinal cord injuries in Australia including the additional 400 people who suffer a spinal cord injury each year.