by Edna Chiang
**Editor's note: This post is part of a series highlighting members of the ComSciCon community who recently attended the AAAS Annual Meeting, which took place from February 13-16, 2020 in Seattle, WA.
Spinal cord injuries affect ~17,810 people each year in the U.S.1 and can leave surviving patients physically and financially paralyzed for a lifetime. Jessica Chen was researching a treatment for this condition when a car accident left her mom with a spinal cord injury. The accident motivated her to bridge the gap from bench to bedside by pursuing a medical degree after completing her PhD.
Jessica Chen is a sixth year Neuroscience PhD student at the University of Michigan who is working on a gene therapy to treat spinal cord injuries and prevent paralysis. She shared her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2020 Annual Meeting where she was awarded Honorable Mention in the category “Brain and Behavior.”
Spinal cord injuries naturally cause inflammation, but too much can be detrimental to recovery. Chen is testing an anti-inflammatory gene therapy in mice with spinal cord injuries. She used an implant to bridge the spinal cord gap at the site of the injury and a virus to deliver DNA encoding an anti-inflammatory molecule.
Chen found that mice who received this anti-inflammatory gene therapy had less tissue damage and more muscle control compared to those who did not. These promising results will help researchers develop a treatment to help patients regain motor function.
“I love the process of discovery and doing things with my hands; I really love bench work. So that’s why I initially went into a science PhD,” said Chen.
She began her PhD wanting to pursue an academic track but felt dissatisfied as she progressed through grad school: “It felt like it wasn’t enough—I wanted to feel more impactful.”
She filled this void through science communication. Chen regularly volunteered with Skype a Scientist and is on the ComSciCon-Michigan organizing committee. “It definitely gave me more confidence in what I was doing to know that I have the skills and the techniques to communicate well,” she said.
After her mom’s car accident, Chen found herself in the hospital learning about spinal cord injuries from a different, clinical perspective. “I knew the science side. I didn’t know the clinical side,” she said. “My research is highly translational, so at that moment I was having kind of an existential crisis.”
Chen took this as a sign to pursue a medical education after her PhD. She doesn’t view this as a career change, but rather a way to “bring [medicine and research] together and have products for treating things like spinal cord injury.”
Since chronic conditions like spinal cord injuries pose no immediate danger to patients’ lives, the Food and Drug Administration rarely approves treatments for them—which has made Chen even more interested in studying and developing them. Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies have no financial incentives to pursue such treatments.
Chen plans to overcome these challenges by leveraging her experience as a researcher, science communicator, and future physician to bridge the gap from bench to bedside and develop treatments for chronic conditions to help patients.
1National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, Facts and Figures at a Glance. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2020.
Edna Chiang is a fourth year Microbiology PhD student, NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and NIH Biotechnology Trainee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies hibernating ground squirrels and their gut microbes. She has a PhD minor in Life Sciences Communication and is an alumna of ComSciCon-Chicago 2019. You can find her on twitter, linkedin, or her personal website.