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NEW YORK — Dana Reeve recalled that after her husband, actor Christopher Reeve, injured his spine in a May 1995 equestrian accident, the message from his doctors was bleak.
“The original prognosis was…that he had no movement or sensation below his shoulders, nor would he be expected to regain any,” she said.
The case was seen as hopeless. That assessment wasn’t just applied to her husband. The medical profession as a whole regarded patients with spinal paralysis as people who didn’t really have a chance of improvement, she asserted. As a result, little research was done into potential treatments.
“The current thinking at the time was that with a spinal-cord injury, that was it, and there was no possibility of improvement,” she said in a phone interview last week. “The sense was that meant life in a wheelchair.”
Today, Christopher Reeve can feel touch over much of his body, can move some of his fingers as well, can move his arms and legs while submerged in water and, in the breakthrough that most impressed his wife, can walk on a treadmill when supported by a harness. All of this is the result of aggressive experimental treatments that doctors have developed over the past eight years — partly because of financial support from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.
The couple founded the Christopher Reeve Foundation in 1996, “primarily to deposit checks we were receiving that we weren’t going to cash for our own use,” Dana Reeve recalled. A couple of years later, it merged with the American Paralysis Association and adopted its new name. Since then, the foundation has given out $30 million in grants to fund research into paralysis and $2.5 million in smaller grants to community groups that want to improve the quality of life of paralyzed people.
For her efforts in attracting public attention to the issue of paralysis and encouraging new research into the topic, Dana Reeve is to be honored by the American Apparel & Footwear Association at next Monday night’s American Image Awards, where she will receive the group’s Spirit of a Woman Award.
Today, one of the biggest challenges facing advancements in the treatment of spinal injuries is political, Dana Reeve said. The most promising area of research is somatic cell nucleus transfer, in which genetic material from a paralyzed person is transferred into an unfertilized human egg. That egg is then cultivated to produce stem cells — the most basic human cellular material, which can be grown into nerve tissue.
For many years, nerve tissue was regarded by scientists as nonregenerative — while a broken bone mends itself, severed nerves tend not to. That meant that healing nerve damage, like spinal-cord injuries, was regarded as all but impossible.
The problem is that the somatic nuclear transfer process, which is commonly called therapeutic cloning, has “been lumped together with reproductive cloning,” Reeve explained, adding, “there is a huge difference between the two.”
The key difference being that unfertilized eggs are used in therapeutic cloning, which does not produce or aim to produce human beings.
“Stem cells are the body’s own repair kit,” Reeve said. “Everybody has them. Harvesting and applying them is the key.”
However, the use of egg cells is closely regulated, which limits the research possibilities, she said.
Despite the political and scientific obstacles, the foundation will push on in trying to improve the future of people with spinal injuries, just as Christopher Reeve continues to make breakthroughs in his treatment, his wife said.
Despite the obstacles, she said he is making progress and recalled one breakthrough moment in therapy when Reeve was suspended in a harness over a treadmill. While his legs can’t support his weight, when the treadmill is turned on, they do show some evidence of what’s called “muscle memory.”
“They start the treadmill and the legs start to go,” she said. “He can’t walk, but the legs start to go. It’s stunning.”