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With Reeve Drawing Spotlight, Spinal Cord Research Advances

Science * The paralyzed actor campaigns for funds while studies progress. They all have one goal: to help patients walk again.

August 28, 2000|From Newsday

BEDFORD, N.Y. — Christopher Reeve puffs on a straw that drives his wheelchair that drives his life in the direction of hope. His celebrity and his determination to fight for patients with paralysis have taken him into some of the most prestigious spinal-cord research laboratories in the country. He knows well that his injury--he's paralyzed from the shoulders down and requires a ventilator to breathe--was far too serious for him to qualify as a candidate in an experimental trial.

But the basic science that is helping animals walk has so stimulated his spirit that he can sit motionless in his state-of-the-art wheelchair, can wait 30 minutes for an assistant to bring a glass of juice to his lips to quench his thirst, can withstand wearing a tuxedo to breakfast so his staff doesn't have to dress him more than once a day--because, he says, "there's reason to believe."

Reeve smiles. "The possibility of walking again is a practical problem that can and will be solved," he says. "It's a matter of time before scientists will get people moving again."

The soft-spoken actor best known for his role as Superman in the hit movie series is now center stage in the race to find treatments for spinal cord injuries. His optimism has come to symbolize the excitement emanating from neuroscience laboratories throughout the world.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would fund research using embryo stem cells, which can grow into almost any cell in the body. The research, which Reeve has supported, offers hope for spinal cord injury victims.

It faces a challenge, however, from critics opposed to using embryos as research material. They have vowed to block the move.

On other fronts, animals with spinal cord injuries are moving limbs again. So are a handful of patients undergoing an intense experimental exercise program at UCLA.

And there are a number of potentially revolutionary substances that could, when injected into the damaged spinal cord, promote the growth of new cells to restore communication between the brain and spinal cord.

Preparing for the Possibility of Walking

Reeve keeps himself in shape for that possibility--the day when treatments become a reality. "When the science is ready, we've got to be ready," Reeve tells patients during visits to medical centers throughout the country.

He practices what he preaches. Every day, he wheels into his home gym, and his assistants lift up 190 pounds worth of Superman and place him into devices designed to keep his muscles stimulated and taut. His mantra is simple: "I always look as if I'm ready to stand." And so it came as no surprise to friends and family when, in a commercial during the Super Bowl, Reeve appeared to stand.

But though his reality is far different, Reeve is changing the scope of the agenda for curing paralysis. Attention to the plight of spinal-cord injury patients is at an all-time high, and his speeches to Congress practically guarantee that money will be allocated for research.

The Problem Is Traced to Nerve Cells

More than 250,000 Americans live with paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. Every year, 10,000 more are added to the roll. And the message for them has always been bleak: Doctors had nothing to offer. Why? The nerve cells that make up the spinal cord don't grow and divide like cells outside the central nervous system. Once injured, always injured.

It was only 15 years ago that scientists began to coax nerve cells to grow with the help of "neurotrophic factors," naturally occurring substances produced by the human body that regulate the development and growth of cells. At last there was reason to believe the spinal cord could heal.

"We're learning that the circuits controlling movement and coordination are there," said Dr. Gerald Fischbach, director of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md. "Now, we just have to figure out how to activate them."

In test tubes and in animals, scientists are fixing the damaged axons--the long extensions of a nerve cell that travel from the brain to the cord and beyond to send messages. Others are even getting the axons to grow beyond the damage with the hope that the healthy extensions will reconnect to nerves on the other side of the cut.

The goal, says Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, is to figure out how to fix the internal phone lines so that the brain and spinal cord can communicate again.

The spine--made up of bony segments, or vertebrae--constantly talks to the brain to orchestrate movement, starting with such basic functions as breathing. At the site of a cut or bruise--called a lesion--the connection from the brain to the cord is disrupted. The brain may be sending signals, but the message won't get beyond the cord.

Damage to specific vertebrae will lead to different levels of paralysis. Reeve's injury is the most serious: damage to the highest areas, known as C1 and C2. Fewer than 10% of patients even survive such an injury.

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