Nerves, bones, words: Fellows Friday with Ivana Gadjanski

Biologist, poet and fledgling entrepreneur Ivana Gadjanski has worked on using animal toxins as a possible treatment for MS, and is growing bones and cartilage in dishes. She has also published two books of poetry in Serbia. Now she’s developing Pubsonic, an online research tool that allows users to access free medical journal papers via a graphical anatomical interface.

You started out doing interesting work in multiple sclerosis research. What problem were you trying to solve?

In multiple sclerosis, the sheath around the nerves — which has to be there so the nerve can function properly — is getting damaged. Previous research showed that too much calcium causes this myelin to break up, and I identified this increased calcium in the optic nerves I was investigating. My question was: Why is there too much calcium? How does it get in nerves? There are different calcium channels in the nerves, and some animal toxins can block these channels. For example, the black mamba snake, scorpions and some spiders each have toxins that block different types of calcium channels. I applied these toxins to rats with the model of multiple sclerosis. And I found out that there is one toxin, from a sea snail of the genus Conus, that blocks the channel that is the most significant in multiple sclerosis. When I applied this conotoxin to the rats with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, their symptoms decreased.

This toxin has already been used on humans for treatment of chronic pain, though it has not yet been applied for MS. But the fact that the substance is already approved for use in humans is good news.

Omega conotoxin GVIA from the fish-hunting marine cone snail blocks calcium from nerves.

After you finished work with MS, you moved on to working with bones. Tell us about that.

I moved to the osteochondral field, meaning I work on bones and cartilage — the tissues in the joints. Whereas before I was working on in calcium channels in the nerves, I now work on calcium channels in cartilage. In cartilage, calcium is involved in transduction of mechanical signals. Tissues like bones and cartilage are very sensitive to mechanical stimulation. Bones and cartilage cannot form and function properly without mechanical stimuli — another reason why physical activity is important to maintain its health. When you move, you perform mechanical stimulation on your bones and cartilage. Likewise, when you are trying to engineer new bone and new cartilage in a lab from stem cells, you need to stimulate it mechanically, and that means you have to press these tissues in some kind of a machine, or bioreactor. That’s not easy when you have something already very fragile and anatomically shaped. My project was to try to induce mechanical stimulation using chemical stimulation — in other words, to try to get to the same effects as mechanical stimulation by applying chemicals. And that’s where it’s important for this calcium to work, so that we can directly stimulate the calcium channels, helping bone or cartilage to repair itself.

At the moment, this is all still happening in the lab, essentially in a dish.

How will this then eventually be applied?

It can eventually lead to the repair of damage in osteoarthritis and sport injuries. There is already one clinical treatment available. It’s called autologous chondrocyte implantation. And that means that you get cells from the knee of the patient, and then you grow these cells in the lab to have more of them and put them back in the knee. This has actually very good results. I was in Sweden at the lab that invented this technique. During one operation, the patient said he was a mountain climber, and he said his wish was to go climb Mt Everest. He’d never done it. The doctor said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s help you to go to Mt Everest.” And the funny thing is that several months afterwards, he actually did climb Mt Everest! So the treatment is very effective. Applying chemical compounds to mimic mechanical simulations could become part of this procedure. So in the lab, you’d have cells that you take from the knee, and you’d apply substances to create more of the healthy cartilage cells.

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