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Christopher Reeve's Legacy of Research

Actor and quadriplegic Christopher Reeve inspired people to work harder to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.

The Search for Cures in Stem Cell Research

Christopher Reeve spoke out forcefully and often about the need for stem cell research, and he is credited with helping make it a major issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry even mentioned the actor's efforts during the second 2004 presidential debates.

The hope is that embryonic stem cells hold the key to regenerative therapies that will make Christopher Reeve's dream of walking a reality for others with spinal cord injuries. President George Bush restricted federal funding for all but a few embryonic stem cell lines in 2001, but polls show most Americans now favor stem cell research.

While embryonic stem cell research is promising, so is research using adult stem cells, says Miami Project Scientific Director W. Dalton Dietrich, PhD. In research partially funded by the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Miami Project investigators recently reported significant regrowth of brain and nerve tissue cells in paralyzed rats that received growth promoters and cells derived from their arms and legs. The rats experienced 70% improvements in walking, and Dietrich says the investigators hope to win approval for human trials within the next two years.

"The idea is to change the environment to make those cells that have been injured wake up and start growing again," he tells WebMD. "Cellular therapy is a very promising area of research."

Another important focus of research is finding drugs or other therapeutic approaches to prevent paralysis from occurring at the time of injury. For example, early research suggests that cooling the body down following injury can protect it against paralysis.

"There are a variety of pharmacological and other procedures being tested that one day may be commonly used to treat people in the acute injury setting," Dietrich says.

Christopher Reeve's Legacy

Dietrich, McDonald, and the other spinal injury experts who spoke to WebMD say even though Christopher Reeve is no longer around to serve as the public face of spinal cord injury, his legacy will endure.

"I don't think the public will forget about him or his message," Dietrich says.

"He kept spinal cord injury in the spotlight," McDonald says. "It is not possible to overstate his impact. I treated him and he was my friend, and even though I knew how serious his injuries were I can tell you that he seemed invulnerable in my mind. He had battled back from things like this so many times before I was sure he would do it again."

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