Langley scientist makes breakthrough discovery that could help people walk again

Texas-PEG material succeeded in restoring function in rats with severed spinal cords

  • Nov. 1, 2016 8:00 p.m.
William Sikkema

William Sikkema

A doctoral student from Langley has created a nanomaterial that could be life-changing for people with spinal cord injuries. The discovery was recently published in Surgical Neurology International.

William Sikkema has synthesized a material called Texas-PEG, which is a functionalized type of graphene nanoribbons meant for medical use. Sikkema graduated from Trinity Western University in 2014 and is currently completing a PhD at Rice University in Texas.

The customized nanoribbons have succeeded in restoring function in rat models whose spinal cords were severed in a procedure performed at Konkuk University in South Korea.

Only 24 hours after their spinal cords were severed, rats showed some electrical connection between the brain and body. Almost full motor movement— 90 per cent —was restored after only two weeks of recovery, and 95 per cent after three weeks. Previous experiments, performed without the nanoribbons, saw only about 10 per cent recovery of motor control after four weeks.

“Most scientific research is very incremental,” said Sikkema.

“Having 95 per cent mobility recovery is night and day.”

The project began when Sikkema read about work by an Italian neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, who hopes to perform the world’s first full-body transplant. Sikkema thought water-soluble graphene nanoribbons might enhance Canavero’s GEMINI protocol, which depended on PEG’s ability to promote the fusion of cell membranes by adding electrical conductivity and directional control for neurons as they spanned the gap between sections of the spinal cord.

Now that his Texas-PEG has proven successful in rats, Sikkema’s team, including his supervisor at Rice, James Tour, will soon create the materials for use in an experiment involving dogs, and later monkeys. If they are successful, Sikkema hopes surgeons will able to use the materials in humans soon afterward.

“I don’t want to give any false hope for people with spinal cord injuries,” he said. “Mice are a little more robust than humans with regards to their nervous system. They can regenerate a little more easily than humans. If the monkey trial works, I’m cautiously optimistic for this in humans.”

Sikkema’s project has funding from the Canadian NSERC grant by way of an Alexander Graham Bell graduate scholarship.

The professors who taught and mentored Sikkema at TWU during his undergraduate degree are impressed, but not particularly surprised about his creation.

Julia Mills, an associate professor of biology at TWU, says his success is well earned. “William stood out from the very beginning,” she said. “He was one of those people who didn’t really see obstacles. He saw possibilities.”

Sikkema worked for Mills as a lab researcher during his time at TWU.

Another one of William’s professors who is especially proud is Dr. Arnold Sikkema, a professor of physics at TWU. He also happens to be William’s father.

Arnold says he first heard about William’s idea during a late-night phone call, and wasn’t particularly surprised, explaining that William is always full of ideas.

“Talking to William on the phone is like a hurricane,” he says with a laugh. “He just tells us everything he’s just figured out at super top speed.”

Fortunately, both Arnold and his wife are scientists, and have little trouble keeping up. William credits them with making him look at the world through scientific eyes.

“He thrives in the lab. That’s his element. When (he was) living at home, we had to put a sign on the microwave after a while that said, ‘No experiments in here,’” says Arnold.

“Some parents want their kids to be like them, but I don’t. I want my kids to be far better.

“I just know that he’s got much more depth and intuition than I ever had, and the breadth of his training is superior.”

Amy Robertson, Special to the Times

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