While advances in medicine have produced treatments for many conditions once thought to be incurable, one notable absence is the lack of an effective cure for injuries to the central nervous system, or CNS. Because the neurons of the CNS are unable to regenerate, unlike the cells in much of the rest of the body, trauma to the nervous system remains extremely dangerous, often leading to death or permanent disability. PhD student Noa Grooms is performing research in the department of bioengineering that he hopes will someday contribute to a breakthrough in the treatment of such trauma – with help from some very small worms.
As a research assistant studying under Assistant Professor Samuel Chung in Northeastern’s Neurolab, Grooms is studying a form of natural regeneration known as “lesion conditioning”. “This process involves damage to a peripheral nerve, which will trigger mechanisms that govern axon regeneration and outgrowth,” he explains, “This behavior is observed among mammals and vertebrates and has been studied for over 30 years, but despite that it remains poorly understood because of the difficulty in studying mammalian models in particular.”
To overcome this challenge, Grooms’ research group focuses on the nematode – a tiny invertebrate with see-through skin whose formal name is C. elegans. Since the 1960s this millimeter-long worm has been a great boon to biological research of the CNS, thanks in large part to its distinction as one of the smallest organisms to have a fully-developed nervous system. By studying the way the nematode’s nervous system develops and responds to injury or illness, researchers are able to glean useful data for the study of the nervous systems of higher organisms.
Grooms and his labmates focus on the nematode’s ASJ neurons, which are involved in sensing their environment and the presence of food. He explains, “Our lab is able to model regeneration in that neuron, so that we can find therapeutic targets for central nervous system diseases.”
All of this is in hopes not of finding a cure for CNS injury or disease in humans, but of laying a groundwork for future generations of researchers to continue the job. An effective cure for nerve damage is still generations away, according to Grooms. But rather than be dismayed by the amount of work yet to be done, he is optimistic. When asked about the long-term impact he hopes his work will have, he says, “My hope is that I can pave the way for mammalian researchers in the future, by giving them specific genetic targets to look at.”
Once he completes his PhD, Grooms hopes to find a position in the pharmaceutical industry where he can continue to do research that will help others. “I’m hoping to pursue a career at a pharmaceutical industry to identify therapeutic targets or to develop therapies or drug delivery platforms for treating neurodegenerative diseases.”