“Those of us who live a ‘normal’ life have a hard time imagining what it means to live with spinal cord injury”

A Q&A with Nobel Prize Recipient Sir Richard Roberts, Ph.D., F.R.S.

Sir Richard Roberts won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for the discovery of the mechanism of gene splicing, which opened the door to new insights into therapeutics development.

He has a very personal connection to the mission of InVivo Therapeutics: His son Andrew was in a car accident at age 20 and suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him unable to move his arms or legs. Hoping to make a difference for other families with spinal cord injury, Dr. Roberts later joined the scientific advisory board and the board of directors at InVivo, which is developing the Neuro-Spinal ScaffoldTM for the treatment of acute spinal cord injury.

Dr. Roberts is the chief scientific officer of New England BioLabs, which specializes in the discovery, development and commercialization of reagents for genomic research.

We talked with Dr. Roberts about his son’s spinal cord injury, the standard of care for treatment – and the potential for future improvements.

Could you please share a little bit about your family’s experience with spinal cord injury?

We got a call in the middle of the night, telling us our son had been in a car accident and was badly injured. They didn’t know how long he might have to live. I got down there as fast as I could.

Andrew was in Florida at the time of his accident. He was in the Navy and had been on leave for the day, and he was driving back to his base when a drunk driver plowed into him. He was 20 at the time.

It was a very difficult time.

What was it like as a family adjusting to your new reality?

It took a lot of time and attention to ensure Andrew was getting proper care. The emotional toll was the most difficult part. Every day when I was driving to the hospital, I’d be wondering, what am I going to find when I get there? On the way back, I’d be wondering: What more could I have done? What didn’t I do? It’s devastating from an emotional standpoint as a parent.

Andrew actually deals with it better than I do. He spent time at The Courage Center in Minneapolis, where he received a lot of psychological counseling that empowered him to take charge of his situation. The Courage Center was heavily focused on ensuring that Andrew was able to make the most of his ‘new normal’ and restore whatever independent function he could.

After rehabilitation, Andrew was able to live on his own, with the support of a caregiver. He attended University of California, Berkley and pursued a degree in computer science for a few years.

What has he done in the years since?

He finds it more difficult to move about in his wheelchair now and he has to spend a lot of time in bed, so he enjoys activities that stimulate his mind.

He and I used to play chess over email all the time. As a kid, he’d never beaten me. Then suddenly I noticed that he was getting progressively better. One day, he beat me. Eventually, he confessed that he had been taking lessons from a Russian grand master.

He communicates a lot with friends by email and Zoom. He loves movies and documentaries. Once a year, he goes into New York City to visit friends and go to the theater. He deals with it much better than I do.

As a scientist who has made groundbreaking discoveries, do you believe the field of spinal cord injury is ripe for innovation?

I have felt that way for a long time. The standard of care really has not changed in 30 years.

That is why I wanted to get involved with InVivo.

When I first heard about Bob Langer’s innovation and learned that spinal cord regeneration might be possible, I was really excited. Even though I knew it would not be possible to help my son, I thought it would be great if this technology could help others.

Those of us who live a “normal” life have a hard time imagining what it means to live with spinal cord injury.

The standard of care really has not changed in 30 years.

What can we do to encourage more scientific and clinical innovation?

I often say that anything worth doing is risky. If you’re not prepared to take a risk, you will not make a great advance.

You also have to know that it takes a long time to get from a basic scientific discovery to an approved drug. I made the discovery for which I won the Nobel Prize in 1977, and it was just three years ago that the first clinical application came to fruition. In my case, it took 40 years for my research to reach the clinic.

Bob Langer, InVivo’s co-founder and an inventor of the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold, is a great example of someone who has repeatedly translated basic research into medical innovation. He is a great model.

What do you hope the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold could accomplish?

The beauty of the of the Neuro-Spinal Scaffold approach is that, once it is shown to be safe, InVivo can evaluate other approaches used in combination with the scaffold. For instance, you could add neural stem cells or therapeutics that would encourage restoration of neuronal connections.

For me, the first goal is to get the scaffold approved and see that it is useful for patients. That would open the door for the next stage of innovations, which I think could make a real difference.

‘This sounded like science fiction’

A Q&A with renowned inventor Robert S. Langer, Sc.D.

Robert S. Langer is one of the most prolific inventors and company founders in the biotech industry.

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Langer has invented the technologies behind more than 1,360 issued and pending patents worldwide; those discoveries have been licensed or sub-licensed to more than 400 biopharma, chemical and medical device companies.

Dr. Langer is one of 12 Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the highest honor that can be awarded to a faculty member at MIT. He has received hundreds of major awards, including the National Medal of Science. Dr. Langer has served as both the chair and a member of the highest advisory board to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A pioneer in the field of tissue engineering, Dr. Langer developed Neuro-Spinal ScaffoldTM to promote regeneration of nerve cells in injured spinal cords. He then co-founded InVivo Therapeutics to advance the scaffold through clinical testing. Dr. Langer also sits on InVivo’s Scientific Advisory Board.

We asked Dr. Langer about the discoveries that led to the scaffold’s development and his vision for building on the device in the future.

You are widely regarded as one of the founders of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. What was your inspiration for resorbable polymers as surgically implanted therapies?

I’ve always been interested in the possibility of using biomaterials to solve challenging medical and surgical problems. My goal has been to leverage innovation in this field to make the biggest impact possible.

In the early 1980s, a friend (Jay Vacanti) and I had the idea of creating 3D organs from synthetic polymers to help keep babies alive while waiting for liver transplants. From my early work, I became fascinated with polymers and their potential to address a wide range of medical problems. Initially our target was the liver, but from there, we began to explore many other potential applications. We could use the polymers to help support other organs, muscle tissue and even blood vessels. Some polymers could even be used as artificial skin to help burn victims heal.

Along the way, we hit upon the idea that perhaps the right polymers could become a scaffold to bridge the cavity that develops in the spine shortly after a spinal cord injury. Neurons can’t transmit signals across that cavity, which is why patients with this type of injury become paralyzed: The signals from their brain cannot reach their arms and legs. We were interested in whether we could design a polymer that would encourage cells to grow in that cavity – and ultimately, remodel the tissue in a way that might preserve the spinal cord’s ability to transmit at least some signals from the brain. That idea became InVivo’s Neural Spinal Scaffold.

In some ways the inspiration behind our 3D scaffold structures was drawn from seaweed– we designed our polymer system based on the porous interweaving patterns you see in seaweed.

I’ve always been interested in the possibility of using biomaterials to solve challenging medical and surgical problems. My goal has been to leverage innovation in this field to make the biggest impact possible.

Why are scaffolds so well suited for the treatment of spinal cord injuries?

The scaffold is designed to provide the structural stability necessary to allow repair to take place. Basically, we hope it will give the body the jump start it needs. Once the scaffold has done its job, we expect it will be safely resorbed into the body.

The Neuro-Spinal Scaffold consists of two biocompatible polymers: PLGA (Polylactic-co-glycolic acid) provides the support and PLL (Poly-L-Lysine) promotes cellular attachment. Together these two polymers form a strong and highly porous structure that is conducive to cellular attachment and neurite outgrowth.

The original idea for the scaffold was to be a ‘bridge’ you could implant within the injured site to help cells repave the damaged spinal cord area. Our thinking was that it would close the gap like a band-aid and promote cellular regrowth. And it did perform better than control surgery without a scaffold; in animal models, we saw less scar tissue and less open space around the injury site in those treated with the scaffold.

What are potential future applications for polymers and scaffolds in the spinal cord injury field?

There is a lot of room for innovation in the spinal cord injury field. We have been investigating applying stem cells to the scaffold before it’s implanted in the patient, for instance. In preclinical studies, we are beginning to see that adding stem cells in this manner may aid in the development of certain nerve connections.

We also hope to investigate applying certain enzymes to the scaffold; we believe they may help remove scar tissue which could enable more direct access for growth factors to repair damaged nerves to help with limb mobility. We could even add controlled-release growth factors to the scaffold. We’re excited to explore these opportunities for both acute and chronic spinal cord injury.

In general, the whole area of tissue engineering is a great opportunity for biomedical innovation, as there are so many conditions that a drug alone won’t help. To a lot of people who reviewed our grant applications in 1980, this sounded like science fiction — but we have come a long way toward making it a reality in 2020.