Protégé power

Undergraduate research prowess gives Dr. Murray Blackmore’s lab a boost

Biomedical sciences undergraduates Kristen Winsor and Matt Simpson working in Dr. Blackmore’s research laboratory — Photo by Jesse Lee

Restless, Matt Simpson walked briskly across campus on a bitterly cold February night to Schroeder Health Sciences Complex where, in a fourth-floor lab, a computer was compiling data on genetic material that might hold clues to reversing paralysis. When the computer spit out the results, the junior biomedical sciences major had his first “Eureka!” moment — and he’s been transfixed ever since.

“The results proved certain genes work in the way we predicted them to,” Simpson recalls. “At that moment I realized I had discovered information that nobody else in the world knew. I simply sat there and smiled.”

Simpson is one of four undergraduate students in Dr. Murray Blackmore’s lab. Along with two postdoctoral fellows, the team is working to help regenerate damaged axons — those microscopic, tentacle-like structures that connect neurons and carry the brain’s messages throughout the body. When marred through trauma, axons fail to communicate properly, resulting in paralysis.

Amphibian species such as the salamander are able to regenerate and regrow axons, even in adulthood. This growth machinery is also active in the human embryo, but is turned off once the axons reach their growth target.

“There’s an evolutionary reason for shutting down additional growth to prevent aberrant connections,” Blackmore says. “That’s nature.”

He believes gene therapy can be used to reactivate the axonal growth machinery in adult human cells.

Ultimately, the assistant professor of biomedical sciences is hopeful that the strides made in his lab will lead to therapies capable of reversing immobilization following spinal cord damage. Due in no small part to a personal connection to spinal cord injury — his mother was left paralyzed from the shoulders down following an auto accident when he was only 12 years old — he’s a passionate, focused researcher.

“I truly believe that undergraduate research is more than just a résumé builder,” Blackmore says. “Instead students can play an integral role in the making of valuable discoveries.” — Dr. Murray Blackmore

But he’s no lone wolf. Blackmore credits his entire laboratory team, including Simpson and fellow undergraduate Kristen 
Winsor, with making much of what happens in his lab possible. 
Situated at the end of a corridor dotted with research posters, the lab itself is modest and unassuming. But the science inside the long, two-room facility is highly sophisticated.

“I try to understand what is different between an embryonic neuron and an adult neuron that explains the difference in their ability to grow,” Blackmore explains. “And then — this is where it gets really cool — ultimately you want to restore that ability in the older neuron. You want to change gene expression in the older neuron to mimic that earlier state in development.”

Blackmore’s target: the approximately 1,000 genes in the young neuron that differ from the older neuron. His lab methodically measures gene expression levels in a petri dish. With a high-throughput screening microscope, he can determine whether a specific gene helps axons grow and by how much.

Enter Simpson. Blackmore calls the pre-med student “extremely intelligent,” crediting him as the expert on the screening microscope, which looks more like a laser printer than a highly complex piece of imaging equipment. Nevertheless, it requires careful calibration — a skill Simpson has sharpened.

“Our work is incredibly labor intensive, but we can use technology to do it more quickly,” Blackmore says. “Matt’s expertise has been a game-changer for the lab. When I’m in trouble, I call him.”

Winsor’s approach to the axonal growth issue is different. Her goal is to get axons to grow in the face of cellular signals telling them not to.

“She’s a bulldog,” Blackmore says of Winsor, whom he counts as a lab leader. “She’s as persistent as they come and deeply dedicated to the work.”

Winsor is equally effusive in praise for her professor. “I definitely got lucky in having Dr. Blackmore as a mentor,” she says. “I came into this lab with little patience for when things don’t work as planned, and being able to work under him has taught me that science requires patience, particularly when taking on a complex problem.”

Simpson agrees: “The most difficult part of research is staying patient. Whether it is waiting for a procedure to be completed, waiting for data to come in or waiting for a meaningful synthesis of results, research always entails an anticipation that is hard to control. This anticipation can result in dejection at poor results, but it is all worth it for the instances of success.”

And those are the lessons Blackmore hopes his students take away. 
“Research can be brutally difficult, as well as brutally disappointing,” he adds. “While it’s not for everyone, it is for Kristen and Matt.”

Dr. Blackmore speaks during a symposium on spinal cord injury at Marquette — Photo by Jesse Lee

Seed funding fosters growth

Both Winsor and Simpson understand and appreciate the gravity of what they’re striving toward.

“Paralysis is a highly visible, tangible problem that clearly needs a solution,” Simpson says. “The very real possibility of regenerating the spinal cord and giving individuals the ability to walk again is the driving force behind why I got involved.”

“I came into this lab with little patience for when things don’t work the way I planned, and being able to work under him has taught me … patience.” — Kristen Winsor, undergraduate researcher

That research, however, is a high-risk, high- gain proposition, which makes top-level federal funding difficult to attain, Blackmore emphasizes. 
Though now armed with a prestigious $1.6 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Blackmore is quick to point out that smaller, private foundation support from the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation, Unite 2 Fight Paralysis, and an organization bluntly called Spinal Cord Injury Sucks (SCIS) has been a critical catalyst in his lab’s development.

“Kristen’s work is funded by the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation, and SCIS donated the money for the high-tech microscope that enables Matt to do what he does,” Blackmore says. “Without this seed money and this pool of undergraduate talent, we could not have established our current pace.” 
These two talented undergraduates will travel to Washington, D.C., in November to present their research at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, an opportunity typically reserved for more experienced researchers.

“I truly believe that undergraduate research is more than just a résumé builder,” Blackmore says. “Instead students can play an integral role in the making of valuable discoveries.

“Like all of our undergraduates, grad students and postdocs, Kristen and Matt are an integral part of the lifeblood of our lab.”

Note: Read more about Dr. Blackmore and his work in a four-part series by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Murray’s Problem

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated MU Health Sciences’s story.