Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a devastating medical condition that can forever change the trajectory of a life. It is also costly to the health care system, like traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s. Dr. Aaron Phillips, Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology, Clinical Neurosciences, and Cardiac Sciences at the University of Calgary studies the hidden health consequences of SCI, which can include blood pressure so unstable that it is life-threatening.

Dr. Phillips was awarded a 2019 Brain Canada Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research grant, which supported his research to understand the neural circuits that cause blood pressure dysregulation in SCI patients, as well as test a therapy he invented to treat it.

His exciting work is a good example of how the Future Leaders program enables paradigm-changing research to improve the lives of all Canadians. Since receiving his Future Leaders grant, Dr. Phillips has been awarded additional funding and received impressive recognition.

“Future Leaders is one of the most prestigious acknowledgments for an early-career scientist as it recognizes promise and early-stage excellence,” says Dr. Phillips. “I was encouraged by University of Calgary, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and Libin Cardiovascular Institute to consider this award.”

The ultimate goal of Brain Canada’s signature Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research program is to reduce the social and economic burden of neurological and mental health problems through prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment.

Dr. Phillips was initially drawn to studying SCI because of a personal connection to the condition.

“I had a friend during my doctoral training who had an SCI and it resulted in extremely unstable blood pressure that impacted his quality of life significantly,” he explains. “The blood pressure instability was really uncomfortable for him and stressful as he was aware that it could lead to heart attacks and stroke.”

Dr. Phillips and his team are trying to answer one major question, can they develop tools to solve these hidden hemodynamic health consequences?

“The answer so far is yes; it seems like it because we’ve developed a technology that is currently licensed to a publicly traded company, ONWARD Medical,” he says. “Outside of that, we are still exploring the neuronal mechanisms of our therapy in order to build even better and more refined approaches in the future.”

His research is also studying the long-term benefits of using their therapy on a daily basis. Following his Future Leaders funding, Dr. Phillips was awarded the 2021 Turnbull-Tator Award in Spinal Cord Injury and Concussion Research, a Brain Canada-Barbara Turnbull Foundation award that recognizes an outstanding publication by a Canadian researcher in the area of spinal cord and/or brain injury.

His paper, “Neuroprosthetic baroreflex controls hemodynamics after spinal cord injury”, which was published in Nature, earned Dr. Phillips a $50,000 grant to continue his research. His publication focuses on a therapeutic device that he and his team developed, which uses implantable biotechnology that recapitulates the innate system for blood pressure stability that is damaged after SCI.

“After years of understanding how the nervous system controls blood pressure and revealing the way it is disrupted after spinal cord injury, we were empowered to develop this therapy,” he says. “This award has been an honour as it recognizes that our research program, and collaborative network, are making a real impact in the field of therapeutics for spinal cord injury.”

The device is currently being tested in clinical trials.

Dr. Phillips’ work has already had a tremendous impact on SCI research in Canada and around the world. He has received substantial additional support from the US Military through the Department of Defense and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“This was an incredible honour to see our technology supported by DARPA,” he says. “They have supported the development of breakthrough technologies such as the internet and the mRNA vaccine approaches utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Phillips has also recently been awarded The Arthur Guyton Award in Excellence in Physiology from the American Physiological Society and was named among the Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Magazine. He has funding from several organizations including CIHR and NSERC.

Dr. Phillips’ advancements exemplify the critical need to empower the next generation of neuroscientists. To accelerate cutting-edge brain research, we need to invest in it.

“The central nervous system, involving the brain and spinal cord, is fundamentally who we are,” says Dr. Phillips. “It’s the ghost in the machine, and until we understand it fully, we will never truly understand ourselves as humankind.”

Brain Canada is helping neuroscientists like Dr. Phillips transform the brain research landscape and improve the health of people in Canada. To learn more about the latest discoveries in Canadian brain research, and to donate to brain research, visit braincanada.ca.