Developing a breakthrough is every scientific researcher’s dream. Coming up with a new solution to a significant problem is tantamount to the Holy Grail in this realm. And that’s essentially what Assistant Professor of Psychology Jennifer Wilhelm is on the verge of doing.
Wilhelm’s research into the most effective treatments for peripheral nerve regeneration after injury landed her a coveted National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant this summer. That award – $432,000 over a three-year period – will enable Wilhelm and the seven students who work in her lab to continue refining their understanding of how peripheral nerves regenerate. Ultimately, Wilhelm hopes that her work will lead to better surgical interventions, better rehabilitation outcomes via physical therapy and better pharmaceutical options for those patients unable to exercise.
“We were awarded this grant to look at peripheral nerve injury in general, but my particular interest is trying to understand how individuals with peripheral nerve injuries recover,” says Wilhelm, a neuroscientist who studied at Emory University. “These injuries affect 100,000 people every year in the U.S. They can be as simple as getting a really bad paper cut, or as bad as a laceration in a car accident. What I study are the more traumatic nerve injuries.”
In the course of this research, Wilhelm and her colleagues noticed that male and female subjects required different amounts of treadmill exercise to recover from the same peripheral nerve injury, and they needed different speeds while exercising for optimum recovery. “That was surprising,” explains Wilhelm, “because the cells that we are interested in are not thought to be different in one gender than the other. So we’re now trying to understand how the different types of exercise affect the sexes differently and understand the biology behind why there’s a difference in the sexes. That’s where the breakthrough lies. What I’m proposing to do is so fundamentally different from what other people are doing in this field that it’s just a whole new direction.”
Wilhelm’s work could have far-reaching implications. “Our research has particular bearing on breast cancer patients because a lot of them suffer peripheral nerve injuries after having cancer treatment and they’re often prescribed estrogen receptor antagonists for prevention of the breast cancer recurring. But if you block estrogen receptors, we believe that you actually are preventing the neurons from being able to regenerate properly. And it also has implications for people who are taking hormone replacement and for those who are taking birth control.”
What’s most exciting about this work, says Wilhelm, is the potential for immediate application. “What we’re working on involves the use of estrogen in treatment, and since estrogen has already been approved by the FDA, there really aren’t any barriers for people to start using it immediately. We have colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina, right down the street, who are working in this area and as soon as we have something conclusive, they can adopt it into their treatment of patients at the rehab center there.”
Wilhelm is equally excited about the opportunities that this grant affords her students. “Students in my lab conduct hands-on research. They engage all aspects of the project, including surgery, treadmill training and tissue analysis. By the end of the project, they’re going to have a deep appreciation for what it’s like to ask good questions and try to find the answers. And they may end up with a publication or a research presentation at a conference. I’ve had 20 undergraduate students work in my lab over the past several years, and most of them go on to medical school, or graduate school or dental school. In the work that they do with me, they’re getting the skills that they need to understand how you conduct and interpret research. They also learn the best ways to work together as part of a team, so it’s a tremendous advantage for them.”