Research will study biomaterials to promote spinal cord regeneration

Stephanie Seidlits, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award, the agency’s highest honor for faculty members at the start of their research and teaching careers.

The five-year, $500,000 grant will support Seidlits’ long-term research goal to develop clinical therapies for injury and disorders of the central nervous system

Specifically, Seidlits will study hyaluronic acid, a viscous fluid carbohydrate, and its potential for therapeutics to restore spinal cord function following injury. Hyaluronic acid is a key component in the extracellular matrix of the spinal cord as it maintains the structure of tissues. More recently, it’s also been found to be important in biochemical functions, such as anti-inflammation and wound healing.

In a healthy spinal cord, hyaluronic acid is a large molecule characterized by a long repeating chain of polysaccharides with an atomic weight of more than 300 kilodaltons. During an inflammatory event,, these long chains break into significantly smaller blocks, from 1 to 100 kilodaltons, and play an important role in a healing process. For example, some of these smaller segments signal to the immune system and surrounding cells to initiate the wound healing process after an injury.

However following spinal cord injuries, these smaller segments don’t work as they usually do and instead appear to promote chronic inflammation and prevent healing. Seidlits will look to provide a fundamental understanding of the diverse biological effects of hyaluronic acid and what role different molecular weight chains play in the immune response and tissue regeneration after spinal cord injury. This knowledge could be applied to therapeutic materials, for example in a hydrogel that promotes both wound healing and restores nerve function.

The NSF grant will also support her teaching and outreach activities.

Seidlits joined UCLA in 2014. Prior to this, she was a post-doctoral scholar at Northwestern University, where she received a Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. Seidlits received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.