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CRN: Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine

CRN funding for projects, equipment boosts young researcher’s career

When Zaida Alvarez joined Samuel Stupp’s laboratory midway through 2015, the talented biologist from Spain quickly became a popular choice for research collaborations. But there was one problem — as a neurobiologist researching the ability of biomaterials to regenerate cells in the central nervous system, Alvarez was hindered by a lack of equipment. She didn’t have the proper binocular microscope to perform dissections, or even the tweezers necessary to extract tissues from the animals she was studying. 

Fast forward five years, and the Simpson Querrey Institute (SQI) and the Stupp lab have access to all of the instruments required to perform their own in vivo studies within the SQI animal surgery room. All of these purchases were made possible by the Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine (CRN).

Zaida Alvarez poses with microscope

“Five years ago, we were only producing the materials, and now we are doing the whole project here at home,” Alvarez said. “Every time we want to do a small experiment now, we can do it here and we don’t have to wait on our collaborators to do it, so it gives you some freedom.”

After completing her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in Spain, Alvarez secured a pair of postdoctoral fellowships to support her first four years in the Stupp group — the Beatriu de Pinós Postdoctoral Fellowship (2015-2017) followed by the Paralyzed Veterans of America Postdoctoral Fellowship (2017-2019). She was then promoted in August 2019 to the position of Research Assistant Professor of Medicine at Northwestern.

Alvarez has leveraged the opportunities offered by CRN perhaps as much as any young researcher since the center was founded. As of November 2020, she had coauthored 12 papers since arriving in Chicago, including nine publications related to CRN projects.

Alvarez highlighted three CRN-related publications in particular: a 2017 paper in Nature Communications and 2018 papers in Nano Letters and Science — each of which described different approaches to signaling and manipulating cells in the central nervous system. But all of those papers set the stage for new, high-impact research that Alvarez and Stupp are planning to publish in 2020.

The research describes novel molecular approaches to improve the efficacy of bioactive biomaterials as therapies to treat spinal cord injury. Alvarez said she knew the researchers were onto something once they began seeing positive results in the mouse models of spinal cord injury. 

“We have observed for the first time that controlling the motion of molecules of nanoscale therapies can have a profound effect on their bioactivity, specifically in regenerative processes associated with spinal cord injury repair,” she said. “This novel result will greatly facilitate the translation of the technology to medicine.”

Alvarez said she realized in December 2018 that she wanted to stay at Northwestern after her second postdoctoral fellowship in the Stupp group ended. There were many exciting paths her research could take and important projects to finish, so Stupp recommended her for the position of Research Assistant Professor of Medicine.

She one day hopes to develop an independent research group of her own, but she’ll always have the CRN to thank for support during an important stage of her career.

“My plan is to continue researching how central nervous system injuries, like spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries, can be treated with biomaterials,” Alvarez said. “I also want to experiment with adding exogenous cells or growth factors to biomaterials to increase their regenerative capacity.”