Oct. 11, 2004 -- He became the public face of people living with paralysis, working tirelessly to promote research into spinal cord injury while waging his own tireless battle to walk again. Christopher Reeve had been confined to a wheelchair for just under 10 years when he died this week, but experts say his impact will be felt for decades to come.
"Christopher Reeve will be remembered as someone who changed the world's perception about spinal cord injury," says Marc Buoniconti of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, who is also paralyzed.
His longtime doctor, John W. McDonald, MD, says Christopher Reeve continued to recover motor function up until his death. The two made headlines two years ago on the eve of the actor and paralysis advocate's 50th birthday by announcing he had regained some feeling and could move isolated parts of his body.
"A big part of Chris' legacy is the demonstration that recovery of function is possible long after injury," McDonald tells WebMD. "And there is a lot of hope for a cure out there, which certainly was not the case 10 years ago."
Complications After Paralysis Are Common
Christopher Reeve developed heart problems at his home in New York on Saturday and died on Sunday at a nearby hospital. He was surrounded by his family, according to news reports.
He spent the years following the 1995 horseback riding accident that left him a quadriplegic helping to focus the public's attention on a cure for spinal cord injury. But Christopher Reeve's death also focuses the spotlight on the day-to-day problems of people living with paralysis, says National Spinal Cord Injury Association Executive Director Marcie Roth.
"Unfortunately, the issue of secondary complications cannot be overlooked or underestimated," she tells WebMD. "While the general population thinks that walking again is the primary concern of people with spinal cord injuries, the reality is that they face potentially life-threatening complications from a variety of causes."
Spinal cord injuries eventually affect virtually every organ of the body and lead to what is known as "accelerated aging," says spinal injury expert Suzanne Groah, MD. Life spans for paralyzed people tend to decline depending on their level of injury. Groah says a 40-year-old who is paralyzed from the chest down typically dies a decade earlier than a non-injured person, and people injured as seriously as Christopher Reeve typically live only a few years.
Fatal blood clots are a big concern in the months following a spinal cord injury because of the patient's immobility, but life-threatening infections are a lasting danger. Having a spinal cord injury also increases the risk of developing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers, Groah says.
"Now that we are getting closer to a cure it is really essential that we focus more attention on the health and functioning of people with these injuries," she tells WebMD. "If we find a cure in five years or 10, I don't think it will help as many people as it could unless we focus on these issues now."
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."