Reprinted from...
Winnipeg Free Press, Monday, June 22, 1987, pp. 13-14.

Spinal cord researchers excited about future

By Donald Campbell

"In science, as in anything else, there are fashions," says researcher Dr. David McCrea, sitting in a test tube size office in the University of Manitoba's Basic Medical Science Building on William Avenue recently.

"Cancer research was a fashion," he said, "and it's still important. But now, spinal cord research is in."

Research 10 years old/14

It has taken a long time for the work of scientists such as McCrea to become trendy.

For the moment, spinal cord research has assumed a prominent role in the fundraising sweepstakes - something which is unprecedented in its young history, and those in the field are ready.

After years of fits and starts, says John Lane, executive director of the Canadian Paraplegic Association's Manitoba chapter, public awareness toward the human problem of spinal cord injury has been raised at a time when credible advances in research have been described as attainable.

"The timing for all of this couldn't be better," he admits while shifting in his wheelchair.


Rick Hansen's fundraising campaign is credited with speeding up the development of the new Spinal Cord Research Centre (located at the Health Sciences Centre), which will aid scientific advancements in the field. Tangible advancements in scientific research in the area are thought to be the key to maintaining fundraising momentum after the appeal of Hansen diminishes.

The centre will create new positions for researchers and clinicians. They, in turn, will be able to apply to the monies raised by Hansen as well as other funding bodies.

"We don't know the details of how exactly, the funds raised by Hansen will be disseminated," explains Dr. Larry Jordan, a professor of physiology at the University of Manitoba. "I expect they will establish grant competitions and expert committees will evaluate the applications.

"If that is the process that they adopt, then I think the team here in Winnipeg will be extremely competitive."

Jordan says that the research planned for the Winnipeg centre will be among the strongest in the country in certain areas.

`The timing for all this couldn't be better'

According to Jordan, the new recruits to the spinal cord research team will look at how the brain controls spinal cord activity and what goes wrong after injury. New members to the team will be:

Recruiting has already begun and is expected to continue during the next two years. Some of the positions will be filled within the next six months.

Graft cells

Eventually, he says, researchers will know enough about regeneration of nerve cells to help transplant or graft cells into damaged areas.

"If we can find out enough about how pathways originally develop," he says, "then, we can look at what we can do to facilitate regrowth."

McCrea says these plans are very exciting for local researchers. "We have the potential here to become a major force in spinal cord research," he explains. "By that I mean, researchers from other countries, other cities, will want to come here to spend some time and exchange ideas.

"Three people working alone rarely make big discoveries. It takes a number of people."

Less than five years ago, Lane says, there was very little excitement. The CPA's Manitoba chapter couldn't afford to spend more than $10,000 of its annual budget on research. It tried raising interest in the subject among traditional money sources. But, for various reasons it couldn't drum up a dime.

Nonetheless, the CPA decided to go ahead with its plans anyway. The emphasis, however, of the research was placed on projects which produced immediate results such as improvement of medical care and wheelchair technology.

Slowly, it has been able to expand its research budget and broaden its emphasis. Three years ago the spinal cord unit was created at the Health Sciences Centre with a staff person funded by the CPA's Manitoba chapter. Last year, Lane says some $60,000 was provided by the chapter's fundraising arm, the Manitoba Paraplegic Research Foundation.

All this, however, has changed 180 degrees since Hansen took to the road. During the next five years a spending target of $1.5 million for research has been established by the Manitoba Paraplegic Foundation and the Health Sciences Centre Research Foundation. This is only part of the money which may be drawn to Winnipeg in support of the city's researchers.

Most of that $1.5 million will be directed toward the further development of the spinal cord centre. Its new labs, and planned programs will be the focal point of work carried out in the province.

Lane says the planned activity in Winnipeg is an enormous contrast to past years. He points to as recently as 25 years ago when a cure for spinal cord injury-related problems were thought impossible and there was a dearth of resources for basic physiotherapy and physical medicine.

Reprinted from...
Winnipeg Free Press, Monday, June 22, 1987, p. 14.

Spinal cord research began in Manitoba about 10 years ago

The first attention to spinal cord research began quietly in Manitoba more than 10 years before Rick Hansen hit the road on his fundraising odyssey.

Since then, there has been significant progress made toward establishing a team of spinal cord specialists in this city, especially in the past three years.

The work Winnipeg researchers have undertaken is considered as important as any other developments in the country. It may also have implications in the scientific community beyond the field of spinal cord research.

Dr. Larry Jordan, who is professor of physiology at the University of Manitoba, became one of the first individuals performing full-time spinal cord research in the province. He moved to Winnipeg in 1970 from Dallas.

Now 43 years old, Jordan has spent most of the past 13 years studying the intricacies of human locomotion: what happens when the brain sends a message through the body to initiate walking.

Jordan says that his research also examines how the pathways from the brain to the spinal cord are disturbed by injury.

Once this mechanism is entirely understood, he says, research into the methods of restoring (or manipulating) the interrupted pathways can be completed.

Dr. David McCrea, 32, was a student of Jordan's. He returned to Winnipeg about three years ago, after studying in Sweden, to work on research about the same time as his colleague Dr. Jim Nagy.

McCrea's area of interest focuses on spasticity: the abrupt change in reflex control often experienced after injury to the spinal cord.

"Slight movements or some sort of insignificant stimulation of the skin can induce large and uncontrollable movements," says Jordan. "Someone with a spinal cord injury can spend a lot of time trying to control leg movements.

"Right now," he adds, "this can be controlled by drugs, but their side effects are often unwanted by patients."

Jordan: one of the first

Jordan says Nagy has since taken a break from his research in this field, but has indicated he will return to it in the near future. He adds that Nagy is an important source of information regarding the subject.

Dr. Susan Shefchyk, who began working in spinal cord research three years ago in the fledgling spinal cord unit at the Health Sciences Centre, was officially appointed a staff member of the new research centre at the hospital April 1.

She will concentrate on the disruption of bladder control which may occur after spinal cord injury and assist in the co-ordination of other research undertaken at the centre.

Jordan says that Shefchyk will research the mechanism that directs bladder control and function.

Future research and clinical study in Winnipeg will involve advances made in the study of the brain and transplantation achieved recently in the area of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Any progress made by Winnipeg researchers will also benefit the effort to learn more about the problems affiliated with multiple sclerosis.

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Copyright © Winnipeg Free Press, June 22, 1987. Reprinted with permission.
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