Dr. Charles Tator

Senior Scientist, Division of Genetics & Development, Toronto Western Research Institute / Professor of Neurosurgery, University of Toronto
Researcher of the month: 
Sep 2011

Lifelong dedication to spinal cord research

Dr. Charles Tator is Canada’s guru of spinal cord injury. Since the 1970s, he has worked to prevent, treat and research how to heal major trama in people with severe head, neck and back injuries. 

His skill and compassion have already earned him a place in Canadian history. He is a member of the Order of Canada (2000), Terry Fox Hall of Fame (2003), and Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (Builder). 

A neurosurgeon, professor and basic scientist, Dr. Tator fostered the development of a generation of surgical scientists and transformed the world’s vision of spinal cord injury. His laboratory was among the first worldwide to use electron microscopy and other modern imaging technologies to see secondary mechanisms of injury in the spinal cord, such as the loss of blood supply.

“Once we put that story together. I really felt that we had unraveled some of the mystery of why the spinal cord doesn’t get better in people with major injuries – people like Christopher Reeve, Barbara Turnbull and Rick Hansen,” says Dr. Tator. “I could see why it wasn’t happening.”

And that’s why, he says, he jumped at the opportunity to find ways to use donated adult human stem cells, derived from spinal cords, to replace lost spinal-cord tissue. “We’re the first laboratory to push this research this far.”

He believes that adult human spinal-cord stem cells, once transplanted, will be able to regenerate spinal tissue without the risk of cancer. This risk has emerged in studies of embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS), which are genetically re-programmed stem cells from human skin.

“Our cells have the significant disadvantage of requiring concomitant immunosuppressant treatment,” he admits, “but we feel that the cancer issue is a major one. That’s why our stem cells are potentially better.”

Dr. Tator is not only a principal investigator in the Christopher Reeve Foundation’s North American Clinical Trial Network but a member of its consortium and board. This organization investigates new clinical treatments for spinal cord injury.

Studying the impact of concussion

Dr. Tator is not the kind of man who sits on the sidelines and watches. He was first in Canada to introduce the use of halo vests for treatment of traumatic spinal-cord damage. His advocacy efforts have led legislators to adopt safety laws to prevent accidental brain and spinal cord injury. In 1992, he founded ThinkFirst Canada, an organization that educates people, particularly boys and girls, about safety via the ThinkFirst Injury Prevention Programs.

Another major focus of ThinkFirst is concussion prevention. “We have a high rate of concussion in our society,” he says, “and we need to enhance the level of awareness, methods of management and prevention of concussion.”

Sports-minded Canadians who cycle, dive, skateboard or play collision sports, such as hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, boxing, rugby, football, etc., are at high risk of concussion, he says.

One of his initiatives is the Krembil Neuroscience Science Centre Sports Concussion Project at the Toronto Western Hospital, which examines the brains of retired Canadian Football League (CFL) players and other athletes, jostled by multiple concussions, for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. Tator’s multidisciplinary team of investigators involves Krembil Neuroscience Centre specialists in neurosurgery, neurology, neuropsychology, neuroradiology, neuropathology, genetics, biochemistry and more.

“We really want a full spectrum of clinical and imaging data on these patients beforehand to correlate with what we see at autopsy,” says Dr. Tator. “Our hope is that by studying this, we will learn how to diagnose and treat CTE before death, because at present, it can only be diagnosed post-mortem.”

Project scientists have studied four brains to date. The brain donors, all ex-CFL players, had suffered repeated concussions, yet only two had evidence of CTE.

“We don't have the answers as to why two got this condition and two didn't,” says Dr. Tator. “Further research needs to be done.”

The project has received the endorsement of the CFL and CFL Alumni Association. Recently, TSN sportscaster and retired CFL player Matt Dunigan expressed his support by willing his brain to the project. The Physicians Services Incorporated (PSI) Foundation has awarded a $170,000 grant to the project.

For further information, please contact Dr. Charles Tator using the Email contact form