The Intersection of Fate and Medicine
Dr. Giles Plant & Spinal Cord Injuries
Article by Aron Tesfai
“When I touched down in Miami, I thought ‘What the hell have I arrived in?’ It was a whole new experience. It was completely different.”
“Different” is what best describes Dr. Giles Plant’s course throughout his career. As he recalls his first time in the United States, this sense of diving into the unfamiliar, engaging in new experiences resonates with his career’s direction. From his first aspirations to pursuing professional athletics and his current research in neurology, Dr. Plant’s path to where he is today is quite distinct from those in his field. After having once set off for college with the hopes of becoming cricket player, he now finds himself heading a lab at the Stanford school of medicine, one that conducts breakthrough research on spinal cord restoration. However, as he puts it, his path was once filled with more “chance and fate” than pure intent.
Dr. Plant’s began his studies at King’s College London, where his aspirations of becoming a professional cricket player were halted by the intensity required in the professional leagues. Dr. Plant instead decided to set his eyes on his other passion: medical research. While in his undergraduate studies, Plant’s interests centered around peripheral nerve research, a field that at the time piqued his curiosity and fulfilled his interest. This field would eventually lead him all the way to Australia, where fate would play a pivotal role in shaping his interests.
While in Australia, Dr. Plant’s peripheral nerve research was moving along with success, so much so that he was invited to France to present his lab’s findings among renowned scientists from across the world. But Plant found that his academic interests were shifting to a different, more unexplored field. A close friend of his had been involved in a body surfing accident while in Australia, one that left him paralyzed with a high cervical injury, stripping much of his mobility and independence. As Dr. Plant puts it, seeing his friend in such a state made him “want to truly make a difference” in an area that was relatively unexplored. “The thought of doing something, little or big, for spinal cord injury,” created a fiery passion in him to dedicate his time and concentration towards this uncharted field. However, at the time he was involved in the final proceedings of his peripheral research program, and had little to no connection or experience in the field of spinal cord injury (SCI) studies. Nonetheless, it seemed that fate again would guide him towards his newfound passion, as it was the strong connections he made at the conference in France that propelled him to where he is now today.
“I don’t know if it was pure chance or if it was meant to be”. While at the conference in France, Dr. Plant’s presentation was placed alongside that of Dr. Mary Bunge, a renowned spinal cord injury researcher. After days of discussing findings with her and her team, he was invited to work at her Miami lab, where it turned “fifteen years of experience into three and a half years.” His time there was “an enormous leaping board,” one that exceeded his expectations of SCI research and exposed him to the progressions and mechanisms of this field. There he got involved with the Christopher Reeves foundation, a project focused solely on spinal cord restoration following Reeves’ horse-riding accident. It was ultimately this priceless experience of collective research, reasoning, and collaboration, that has driven his passion for SCI research, an experience that he describes as “truly a unique time—bar none”.
Here at Stanford, Dr. Plant’s current research focuses on correcting upper spinal cord injuries (such as a severed or damaged spinal cord) through the the use of induced pluripotent stem cells. These are cells reverted back to their “original, clean state,” and are injected directly into the site of the spinal injury. The hope of this research is to facilitate axon repair and synapse formation directly in the spinal cord, formation that would allow the spinal cord to “regrow” and function normally. Dr. Plant’s lab has made significant developments that promise optimism in the field of spinal cord research. Although he may not have taken the most traditional path, it was through hard work, determination, and a little fate that he ended up with his current research. He hopes that by the time he’s finished, he’ll have made at least a small difference to improving the outlook on contusion injuries, bettering the recovery of those suffering from freak accidents such as those of his friend and many others across the world.