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Dr. Pantelis Tsoulfas






Research Interests


 Contact Information:

The Miami Project
to Cure Paralysis

1095 NW 14th Terrace

Locator Code R-48

Miami, Florida 33136

Tel:  (305) 243-3433



Home > Our Research Faculty > Pantelis Tsoulfas, Ph.D.



Associate Professor, Departments of Neurological Surgery and Cell Biology & Anatomy



Neurotrophins: Specificity of Action


Research Interests

Pantelis Tsoulfas, M.D.

Dr. Tsoulfas’ research centers on the development of the nervous system, neurotrophin signaling in neural cells and repair of the CNS after spinal cord injury. 

For the development of the nervous system, his lab strives to understand how mitogenic factors influence cell numbers and how cell fates are linked to specific transcriptional networks. Live fluorescent imaging techniques are used to study neurotrophin signaling.  


For spinal cord injury repair strategies, his lab utilizes modified neurotrophins and grafting of CNS derived cells. Several approaches are integrated, including Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics and Imaging techniques.


Interview with Marc Buoniconti, President, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis

Dr. Pantelis Tsoulfas is a principal investigator at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He has been a part of the team since 1996 and his work involves the development of the nervous system and the signaling of neural cells and repair following spinal cord injury.

Marc: Tell me about when you first became interested in science and neuroscience?


Dr. Tsoulfas: I grew up in Greece on an island called Kalymnos. It’s in the Southeast of the Aegean Sea, 240 nautical miles from Athens. It is small place and I remember it being so far away from everything because the boat would arrive from the mainland only once a week.  I didn’t initially have a particular interest in science per se but I was very observant and had boundless curiosity.  I wanted to leave the island and go discover the world.  After high school I left for Italy and spent nine months learning Italian before going to medical school in Pavia, Italy. From an historical point of view, Pavia was an important European university.  Several well known scientists studied and taught there.  The anatomy school goes back 4-500 years.  

In medical school, I liked the first three years but when I reached the fourth year I began to have some doubts.  Also during my training in the hospital I found myself empathizing too much with patients and once I left for the day I was a total wreck.  I realized that I was more interested in the biological sciences. I did really like the basic science part of medicine, so I went to the biology department and it was like a new discovery for me. I interviewed to do my thesis and one of the others was studying the evolution of genes, another was studying a microorganism, the other a population geneticist, so to me it was a revelation.


Marc:  After medical school where did you go and how did you end up in Miami?


Dr. Tsoulfas: I came to the United States and the California Institute of Technology because I had an interest in cellular polarity and the cytoskeleton, especially in neurons.  I spent a few years there and then I joined a group at the National Institute of Health (NIH) that was working on the receptors for the nerve growth family.  Shortly after that I was introduced to stem cells in a different laboratory and that is when I got a call from Dr. Richard Bunge (late Miami Project scientific director) because I applied for a position at The Miami Project.

When I visited the Miami Project for my job interview I had a really nice conversation with him.  I got a really great impression of him.  I have to say that I came to Miami in 1996 in part because of Dr. Bunge. He said we have to see the work in The Miami Project as a mission of doing something really good. That was really important to me.  Science is not just an intellectual exercise here, it’s meant to translate our work to benefit our fellow humans and society as a whole.

Marc:  You’ve been here for 14 years. Are you satisfied with the work you’ve been able to accomplish in that time?

Dr. Tsoulfas:  That is a really a hard question because how we do science is changing constantly and the yard stick to measure accomplishments is changing too.  Also working with SCI is a much more difficult problem than people realize. We’ve learned a lot but we are not there yet.  So I would like to be able to say that we were able to move some of my work to clinic.   That would be an important accomplishment for me as a scientist, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet.  I feel relatively satisfied by being constructive and helping others within The Miami Project to carry out their work and projects.

Marc: What are your short and long term goals?

Dr. Tsoulfas: Short term we’re working on some interesting compounds that we would like to test in animal models of SCI to see if they can improve their locomotor behavior after the injury. Long term we’re trying to go back and understand some of the cellular mechanisms involved after spinal cord injury and change the cellular response to injury by using specific genes and therefore changing the outcome. I have a lot of ideas, but ideas are cheap. At the end we need to put them into practice.

Marc:  Everyone is talking about stem cells but we’re hearing more and more about induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS). Can you tell me about them and how they may fit into our work here?

Dr. Tsoulfas: I think if you are going to use stem cells, you want to use cells that come from the same individual.  Therefore IPS hold a lot of promise because they can be generated from each one of us.  The issue right now about the IPS cells is whether they will behave the same way as the embryonic stem cells (ES).  We don’t know yet what the differences are between them.   Also, the clinical use of IPS or ES cells is still far away.  Scientists are using IPS cells to understand basic questions or reprogramming of adult differentiated cells and uncovering some of the causes of specific diseases, especially of diseases with a strong genetic component.

Marc: Tell me about stem cells and your work.

Dr. Tsoulfas:  Our work right now is going to the basics. We are trying to understand how these stem cells differentiate, what are their properties in the dish, and finally to transplant them and integrate them within the injured spinal cord.

Marc:  Are you trying to do stem cell transplants in experimental models as a path to recovery?

Dr. Tsoulfas:  I’m working with Dr. Thomas to graft embryonic neurons in relevant models of spinal cord injury.  I don’t think that just transplanting stem cells will do it.  First you have to mature these cells into neurons and other type of cells.  Next, if you graft neurons into the injured spinal cord to replace lost ones you need to integrate them into the spinal circuitry and finally connect to the muscles.    We have to find clever ways to do it.  We are working on it.

Marc:   It’s safe to say that we have a lot to learn as it relates to stem cells.

Dr. Tsoulfas:  People think we know more than we do about stem cells.  We still need to understand more about their biology.  Perhaps this whole concept of stem cells as the future for cures has been oversold before we really know what we can do with them.  Part of our work has now shifted into learning how embryonic stem cells differentiate into neurons and how to get specific types of neurons, not just generic neurons.  Another aspect of our work is to identify drugs that affect different cellular processes after spinal cord injury.  The main goal of this project is to discover new drugs that could be used in spinal cord injury.  At the end we would like to combine our knowledge studying stem cells with the use of specific drugs that we think will be beneficial for spinal cord injury.

Marc:   Thank you so much for your time and for giving us a little glimpse of your work.

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