• Podcast
  • May 02 2016

Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research with Sasha Rabchevsky

The best part of my job is meeting the people across the University of Kentucky campus engaged in research and scholarship. They each have a personal connection to their work, and many can point to a single event that changed their career path. After a motorcycle accident left Sasha Rabchevsky paralyzed from the chest down at age 19, he pursued a career of discovery. A professor of physiology in the UK College of Medicine, Sasha is a core faculty member of the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center. I invite you to listen to his story and learn what drives him to train the next generation of researchers.  

Alicia: Welcome to the Research Podcast. I’m Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications at the University of Kentucky. After an accident left Sasha Rabchevsky paralyzed from the chest down, he pursued a career of discovery. A professor of physiology in the UK College of Medicine, Sasha is a core faculty member of the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center.  

Sasha Rabchevsky: So my accident, motorcycle accident, happened in 1985. I was the age of nineteen, sophomore in college ready to play football for a division three school, which was going nowhere, as far as career wise.    

Not initially, but through time after rehabilitation, I realized that what I really wanted to do was not obviously play football anymore, but I wanted to pursue research. And not necessarily to cure spinal cord injury, but to be able to understand what was my condition and if not cure it, figure out and understand why it was that there is no cure for spinal cord injury.  

Alicia: What was the first project that made you decide to pursue a career in research?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: Well before I got interested in research, I was actually a technician at the National Institute of Health. And I did have many projects working as a technician for the NIH. But the real projects that I remember that really decided that I was interested, was my thesis project at the University of Florida where I was the first person to ever transplant enigmatic cells, called the microglial cells, at a time nobody knew what they were, they were sort of bystanders. Now they are actually in vogue and we actually have several of our research faculty here that are actually doing specific research on things that I started maybe ten years ago, which is kind of nice to hear.  

Alicia: What specific aspects of spinal cord injury are you studying right now?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: In particular, what my laboratory has been and is focused on, are two primary problems. One is the spread of the initial injury like a bruising effect. We are using compounds that are targeting specific pathways that reduce the inflammatory response and lifts even the swelling, so that whatever the initial insults occurred, you are going to mitigate or prevent any further damage so that the possibility for recovery is increased exponentially. We’ve come up with some very novel methods that have recently been funded by the NIH, in which we are using pharmacological agents to prevent the dysfunction of what are called mitochondria. And mitochondria are basically an organelle inside the cell that is responsible for both the life the cell as well as the death. So there’s kind of a conundrum. And so, what we’re using is pharmacological agents to stabilize the integrity of the mitochondria so that it prevents secondary cell death.  

So we recently got funded in our efforts to pursue a new approach to instead of protecting mitochondria, we are actually going to be the first laboratory to actually transplant isolated mitochondria into individuals with spinal cord injury. Now obviously we’re working on this with animal models, but the goal is, and this is why I think the investments have been so high with our grantingagencies, it’s a high risk, but a very high reward.  

The second condition that we study, is actually something I myself suffer. It is an autonomic dysfunction. Now when you think of autonomic you don’t think about it, but heart rate, breathing, and things of this nature. There is regeneration that occurs after spinal cord injury, and a lot of it. The problem is it is called maladaptive. It doesn’t form any proper connections and instead, for instance, what happens is in this condition, autonomic dysreflexia, which we study, when you have a painful stimulus below the level of the injury, what it causes is a massive rise in blood pressure. And the individual, myself, doesn’t really know why it’s occurring and there’s no shut-off mechanism for it to happen. So we’re trying to study, in that context, how we can ironically prevent this aberrant plasticity or regeneration that leads to things that are not necessarily good for the human condition.  

How can we restore their autonomic functions whether it’s breathing, bowel and bladder, blood pressure regulation, which are very, very important because the spinal cord injury population being sedentary has a higher- high risk cardiovascular disease.  

Alicia: You mentioned NIH funding, but you also have funding from the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Head Injury Research Trust. What is that?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: We have a very unique Commonwealth, one of the few in the United States, that actually uses drunk driving and speeding ticket monies to subsidize research funds. So this is within state, and it’s between the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky that we compete for these funds. I think that’s what the opportunity you have with a land-grant institute as well as with the KSCHIRT funds, the spinal cord injury research funds that come in. Really establishing an environment where we now have recently, actually within the past three months, recruited two young new- more spinal cord injury faculty because of the momentum that we have here.  

Alicia: What is your favorite part of being a researcher?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: I have to be honest with you, saying one of my favorite aspects of being a researcher is being able to travel and go to conferences. And I know that sounds superfluous because you’re not working, but actually you are working and you’re networking. And that… and I’ve told my graduate students and my postdocs, “Is the key to success as an individual scientist, but also as a community.” We have to be able to network and share things because this is a competitive field. And you can maybe be repeating something that’s already been done, and nobody reported it that it didn’t work because they don’t want negative findings. So I think that in that context, I think one of the most fulfilling things to me is to be able to travel to other universities, institutes, not only to describe my work, but more importantly, what are they doing and what techniques do they have that we can apply at our institute?  

Alicia: What inspires you about working here at the University of Kentucky?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: Honestly, I’ve been here through from being a postdoc to going through the ranks up to professorship, is that, while I’ve gone to other universities, especially very highly prestigious universities, what I really like about this environment is that while everything is competitive, it’s not cut-throat. There isn’t this sense of somebody looking over your back waiting to steal your data. And I see that in a lot of these other big institutions.  

Alicia: What would you tell someone who is thinking about joining the research enterprise here at UK?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: And to anyone out there who would be interested in coming to the University of Kentucky, in particular to do research, I would tell them that this is one of the better environments you would ever witness. The collegiality is very strong here. The interaction for instance. I’m in the Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center, yet all the faculty core members are from different departments. I’m from physiology, we have anatomy neurobiology, we have biology, we have chemistry, we have pharmacology, and these are all individuals who while we have our home departments, we have one area which we all congregate and we have lab meetings, we have works in progress meetings, and we have journal club series. So there’s always interaction not just amongst faculty, but more importantly, amongst the students and the postdoctoral fellows, so that there’s no fear of crossing that border of who’s better than or who’s higher up ranked.            

Alicia: How does your experience in research help you train students?  

Sasha Rabchevsky: So being an academician and a researcher provides me a really unique opportunity, and that’s that I do have graduate students and I have technicians, but I also have undergraduates to do research. And so, every semester I have up to four to five undergraduate researchers who rotate to the laboratory and learn spinal cord injury techniques and the most state-of-the-art methods to take care of animals, in other words no pain and suffering. And this is very critical because a lot of these students are going to go on and apply to medical schools. And so, they use the experience that they’ve had in my laboratory in order to blossom their own fields… careers and fields. It’s also nice when you get down an e-mail or even a real letter, nobody does that anymore, but from a former student who thanks me for something that I did six years ago and I really didn’t do anything except provide the opportunity. So it really does mean a lot to me to, in other words, to be engaged one-on-one with undergraduates as well as graduates and medical students.  

Alicia: Thanks for your time, Sasha. Thank you for listening to the Research Podcast. Join us next time to find out more about research at the University of Kentucky and visit site our site at reveal.uky.edu.