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New Frontiers in Spinal Cord Injury Research

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 4, 2000 (Cleveland) -- On Sunday, Jan. 30, 2000, the largest television audience of the millennium watched as the actor Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic since an accident in 1995, rose from his chair and walked to a podium to accept an award. The very same day that Reeve's computer-generated image shocked Super Bowl fans, seven spinal cord injury patients really were rising from their wheelchairs and standing on their own two feet.

Those seven patients, all with injuries at the base of the neck or lower, are participants in a study of functional electrical stimulation (FES) implants being developed at the Cleveland FES Center. The National Spinal Cord Statistical Center estimates there are between 7,600 and 10,000 new spinal cord injuries in the U.S. each year, a number that drives research efforts on all fronts.

Last month a team of British researchers reported that they had restored limb function and sensation in rats with nerve damage by administering proteins that promote nerve growth directly into the injured areas. These findings are very preliminary and as yet are only used in animal experiments, but may mean hope for the future for people paralyzed due to spinal cord injury.

At the University of Massachusetts Medical School, a team led by Charles A. Vacanti, MD, took immature spinal cells from adult rats, induced them to grow, and then implanted them in the gap of the severed spinal cords of paralyzed rats. The paralyzed animals began to move, although this movement was limited.

Meanwhile, a multinational team of researchers report they have identified the "nogo" gene, a gene scientists say may block regrowth of nerves and requires further study to determine if something can be developed to counteract it.

And all of that comes in just the first month of the new year. The scientists working at the Cleveland FES Center say it looks like a very good year.

The center, founded in 1998, is a joint endeavor of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, the Edison Biotechnology Center, MetroHealth of Cleveland, and the Cleveland VA Medical Center. Its work is funded by a number of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, as well as grants from the Whitaker Foundation, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the State of Ohio.

P. Hunter Peckham, PhD, director of the FES Center, tells WebMD that he and his colleagues have been working for "about 30 years with functional electrical stimulation."

The nervous system operates by means of electrical impulses, which pass information from one nerve to the next. With this system, a stimulating device is used to pass electrical information along and amplify the impulse, even when the nerves are severed, thus bypassing the point of injury and using the nerves' natural electrical activity that is still in place.

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