Miami Project Open House Makes Public Return

The Miami Project Open House returns in 2024


(June, 2024) The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis’ ninth open house, and first since the COVID-19 pandemic, featured enlightening talks by top researchers in the spinal cord injury field and explored the cutting-edge labs where researchers are developing groundbreaking therapies.

“We hold this open house to bond with the people we care so much about,” said Barth Green, M.D., chairman and co-founder of The Miami Project. “These presentations integrate basic science, engineering and technology as we think of ways to improve our patients’ lives.”

Dalton Dietrich, Ph.D., scientific director of The Miami Project and senior associate dean for discovery science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, gave an overview and highlighted the center’s current standing and future direction.

“We are a neuroscience center without borders,” Dr. Dietrich said. “Here, we are developing an infrastructure for clinical translation science to protect and repair the nervous system. Our center stands strong, with nearly 40 faculty and eight postdocs. We have also been published in hundreds of academic journals.”

Technology and Spinal Cord Injuries

The first part of the open house took place in the Lois Pope LIFE Center and included three scientific talks from leading researchers, who fielded questions after their presentations.

Patrick D. Ganzer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami, presented “Targeted Plasticity Therapy” and noted the therapy uses neuromodulation and bioelectronic medicine to stimulate the perirhinal nerve without side effects. This targeted approach can easily be turned on and off to affect the vagus nerve. When paired with rehabilitation, the therapy is then expected to benefit functional recovery after spinal cord injury (SCI).

Hassan A. Ali, Ph.D. M.S.M., associate professor in the Miller School’s Department of Neurological Surgery, presented on “Combining Microscopy, Robotics and Machine Learning to Accelerate Discovery of SCI Therapeutics.”

“Developing and discovering drugs is difficult and expensive, costing $2 billion to $3 billion per drug,” Dr. Ali said. “Since my lab is involved in testing neurons, which can be a labor-intensive process, we are finding solutions with cutting-edge technologies to ease the cost by incorporating robots to make the process more efficient.”

In the final presentation, “Brain-Controlled Neuromodulation for Neuromotor Recovery,” Matija Milosevic, Ph.D., The Miami Project’s director of neuromotor rehabilitation, showed how neuromodulation can help improve damaged motor functions, with nearly an 85% success rate. The process is non-invasive and focuses on activating electrodes placed on the patient’s skin to augment muscle activity for simple tasks like holding or picking up an item. The goal is to then stimulate the spine with these same concepts.

Laboratory Tours Showcase Latest Translational Science

Open house participants toured the high-end Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center for The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at UHealth/Jackson Memorial, a comprehensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facility, and its five laboratories. Anthony Cribbs traveled from Oklahoma City with his family to participate.

“Having exhausted the resources available in Oklahoma City, I was eager to explore the potential The Miami Project holds for my progress,” Cribbs said “This event has proven incredibly insightful and beneficial. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with researchers and witness firsthand the cutting-edge technology they’re working with.”

Members of Dr. Milosevic’s lab complemented his lecture by demonstrating neuromodulation strengthening the connection between the brain and the peripheral nerve. Sandra Marin, who came from Colombia to enroll in The Miami Project four months ago, was inspired by the work.

“This event offers hope for all of us with reduced mobility,” Marin said. “I was searching for an advance outlook in the latest medical practices in SCI and The Miami Project is truly that place. I have been fortunate to be a part of the neuromodulation and it has been amazing to see motion again in my legs, truly a wonderful experience.”

Mark Nash, Ph.D., associate scientific director for research at The Miami Project, heads up a lab that offered an example of applied physiology, presented by Gary Farkas, Ph.D. Electrical currents target metabolism, rather than movement, in the muscles. The approach is important because paralysis increases the risk of metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

Eva Widerstrom-Noga, Ph.D., a research professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Miller School, and her lab team are looking at combining therapeutics, including nonpharmacological approaches, to better treat neuropathic pain.

“Today’s approved medication only reduces pain by 33% for one in seven patients,” Dr. Widerstrom-Noga said. “It’s important to combine some pharmacological treatments with non-pharmaceutical treatments to reduce this neuropathic pain intensity. Here, we are using low-shock therapy to target portions of the brain while working with multisensory integrations.”

Elizabeth Felix, Ph.D., research associate professor in the Miller School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and project director for the South Florida Spinal Cord Injury Model System, uses another kind of shock, quantitative sensory testing, to study paralysis. Her lab uses thermal sensitivity tests to investigate why some patients with spinal cord injury experience chronic neuropathic pain.

The tours concluded with an exploration of male fertility, with Emad Ibrahim, M.D., assistant professor of urology and neurological surgery at the Miller School and director of the Male Fertility Research Program of The Miami Project. Dr. Ibrahim showed how tools for penile vibratory stimulation can help men with SCI who want to father children.

“I hope the participants found our open house interesting and informative,” said Marc Buoniconti, president of The Miami Project. “We are motivated daily to continue our mission as this project changes lives. Our goal has always been to advance and apply basic translational science. It has been one of the proudest things to be a part of.”

By Joey Garcia