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Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett:

Finding a Cure for Paralysis Starts With Baby, or at Least Kid Steps

Written By Cynthia Lechan-Goodman

In the new state-of-the-art laboratory inside unassuming St. Thomas University in Miami, works Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett, Assistant Professor of Biology. Jeff believes the path to curing any disease is making sure that undergraduates are inspired with math and science. And he happens to be working on a research project on the next step in curing spinal paralysis. “It takes a group of scientists to really attack a problem from all different angles, stepping out of the box and thinking about different perspectives. We’ve got to go outside our knowledge base,” explains Dr. Plunkett. That is why he includes undergraduates and especially inner city kids in his daily considerations.


Jeff has just received a momentous Department of Defense appropriation of $1.6 million for St. Thomas, through Debbie Wasserman Schultz ( for his research proposal on spinal regeneration. “This money is being used to form a consortium of scientists to study spinal cord regeneration. It is my hope that Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett and the students taking part in this research are successful and find the answers they seek. In March, President Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. For the millions of Americans suffering from debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, embryonic stem cell research offers unparalleled hope that a cure is forthcoming,” says Wasserman Schultz.


After a spinal cord injury, human spinal cord regeneration is blocked by inhibitory molecules, called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPG’s). CSPGs are like stop signs, explains Dr. Plunkett, and prevent spinal regeneration. But in experiments where spinal cords in fish were clipped, within 12 weeks the fish recovered 80% of normal swimming behavior. Plunkett assumed that what was going on here was that fish do not produce the CSPGs, or do not put up the “stop signs” telling spinal cells notto regenerate. However, much to his surprise, he discovered that fish do produce the CSPGs, but for some reason their cells do not “see” the “stop signs” as mammalian cells do. This is exciting, because if the same “stop signs” are there, and he can figure out what prevents fish cells from “seeing” them, maybe that can be applied to mammalian cells. This is the basis for his research and the grant.


Plunkett feels the need to share his passion for research with kids, especially inner city kids. “Kidsdon’t get the opportunity to find their science potentials. Inner city kids get shortchanged, can’t perceive themselves as future scientists, so they don’t see their potential and don’t pursue the sciences or math. Our country is missing out on this great talent base.” Plunkett and Dr. Edward Ajhar, Dean of the School of Sciences, have been trying to change that by providing access to the St. Thomas labs to high school and middle school students. Dean Ajhar and Plunkett agreed that with hands-on experiences these kids can be inspired to consider a future in science. “With a diversity of people you get the wide diversity of angles that we need to solve our problems” believes Plunkett. He says research shows that kids are interested in science at a young age. Children are natural scientists, they look at the world and have a need to understand how it works, somewhere along the line they lose that. If we can show all kids in the inner cities and beyond that science “is cool” then, say Plunkett and Ajhar, we can renew that fascination and grow tomorrow’s scientists from every walk of life.-DUO

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