Robin had aspirations of being a veterinary surgeon from a young child, with strong interests in biology and the natural world. Originally planning to be large animal practitioner, Robin enrolled as a student at the Royal Veterinary College.
As a vet student Robin was somewhat atypical, finding the preclinical courses on physiology and biochemistry especially enjoyable. From this he developed a particular interest in the physiology of the nervous system, securing funding from his local authority for an extra year to complete a series of courses in neuroscience as part of an intercalated BSc in physiology at University College London. Upon completing this year Robin returned to the RVC to complete his clinical training in veterinary medicine and qualify as a vet.
After qualifying in 1988, Professor Franklin attended Cambridge Vet School to complete a PhD in neuroscience with Bill Blakemore. Robin completed his PhD in 1991 followed by a postdoctoral fellowship, where he continued to work on the mechanisms by which the central nervous system (the CNS) attempts to repair itself after injury. Whilst this work was all laboratory based, Robin maintained a parallel interest and involvement in veterinary neurology and in 1994 obtained a further fellowship from the Wellcome Trust to establish his own research group. This then led to a lectureship, and eventually in 2005 to the award of a personal professorship in neuroscience.
As a consequence his work on the fundamental biology of brain cells and regeneration increasing, Robin’s direct involvement in veterinary medicine decreased. This involvement in veterinary medicine was reignited however when Robin teamed up with Nick Jeffery, an academic veterinary neurologist with a particular interest in spinal cord injury in dogs. The pair’s work focused on a cell Professor Franklin had been studying since the mid-1990s, a specialised form of cell from the nose called an olfactory ensheathing cell that has properties which encourage nerve regrowth after spinal cord injury.
Nick and Robin explored whether these cells could be used to help dogs with spinal cord injury, a common neurological problem in the domestic dog population. The idea was to take these cells from an injured dog’s nose, grow them in tissue culture so that larger numbers of cells could be obtained and then transplant these cells back into the injured spinal cord of the dog from which they came. This led to a clinical trial in domestic dogs with spinal cord injury which the pair conducted together with Nicolas Granger, another academic veterinary neurologist. The work undertaken was the first ever randomised, double-blinded cell transplantation trial in clinical spinal cord injury in any species including humans.
The results of this trial were reported in November 2012 in the leading neurology journal to significant media interest. The results showed that dogs with stable chronic spinal cord injury that had lost the use of their hind legs were able to recover an impressive degree of movement. However, not all functions lost following injury were regained. This study served as evidence that autologous OEC cell therapy was efficacious in clinical spinal cord injury but also that is not a cure. In the wider arena, it has provided invaluable information of whether or not we should proceed with clinical trials in humans.
The impressive work Professor Franklin has undertaken with dogs and spinal cord injury is a small part of his wider work, most of which is centred around the biology of regenerating oligodendrocytes, the myelin forming cells of the CNS, from stem cells already present in the CNS. This has particular relevance to the human disease multiple sclerosis.
In January of this year Professor Franklin left the Cambridge University Veterinary School to join the University’s Medical School as Professor of Stem Cell Medicine and Head of Translational Science at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute.
Speaking of receiving the International Award as part of the International Canine Health Awards, Robin said “It is huge honour to receive recognition by my profession of the work I have done towards developing new therapies for the treatment of devastating neurological diseases in dogs and other species (including humans), for which I am immensely grateful”.