He first became aware of the work being done at Griffith when it was initially pioneered by 2017 Australian of the Year Alan Mackay-Sim, and says the fact they are now potentially about a year away from clinical trials felt like the final stretch of a marathon.
“The work slowed down due to a lack of funding, and I was determined that if it was only funding that was an issue I would do everything I could to help it get funded,” Mr Cross said.
“James held up that little dish today and showed the nerve they’ve developed, and that is world-leading technology.”
The research takes cells from a patient’s nose and grows them using a 3D cell scaffold into a structure that could potentially be implanted back into the patient at the site of the damaged spinal nerve.
Professor St John, who leads the research alongside Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg at the Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, said what they have developed will not allow spinal patients to walk again, but could restore significant quality of life.
“The spinal cord is very complex and to regenerate that network of neural connections is difficult,” he said.
“What we hope to do is to allow people to breathe on their own, be able to move their fingers or to feel a pressure sore that might be developing, so they can regain control over their bodies.”
More than 15,000 people in Australia suffer from some form of spinal injury, with new cases occurring at the rate of nearly one every day.
The injection of the $5.7 million by the Queensland government will allow the researchers to expand on their work further and push for a clinical trial in the next 12 to 18 months.
Deputy Premier Jackie Trad announced the extra funding on Wednesday, saying the government was committed to making Queensland a world leader in medical research which has an effect on people’s lives.
“To be able to build cell bridges that don’t rely on synthetic products, is an incredible discovery – it means there is opportunity to repair and regrow spinal cells,” Ms Trad said.
“If we can help to improve the lives of people living with spinal injuries then this is an investment that has paid in spades.”
Mr Cross said just a small change in function could have huge implications for someone living with a spinal injury.
“For someone like myself, I’m ventilated and can’t breathe on my own. If I was able to get off the ventilator that would be a huge change in my quality of life,” he said.
“I’m very optimistic, while James is being very realistic, but watch this space, there’s more that will happen.”
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.