ANNUAL REPORT

Giong beyond mobility in spinal cord injury care

Spinal Cord Injury Triggers Systemic Spinal Cord Diseases

The Ohio State University College of Medicine has recruited the world’s top researchers focused on spinal cord injury (SCI). Together, we are making substantial strides in some of the most critical areas impacting patients with SCI – inflammation, infection, digestive health and liver/metabolic disease – with more than 30 years of continuous NIH funding. Our researchers’ findings are instrumental in creating a new clinical care model that will improve lives of SCI patients worldwide.

“Spinal cord injuries often lead to secondary health conditions, including high blood pressure, incontinence, gut health issues, dysregulated metabolism leading to obesity and diabetes and an increased risk for developing life-threatening infections or sepsis.” Click to tweet this story

SCI is more than a matter of immobility. “The spinal cord injury creates a systemic disease that is secondary to the dysfunction of organs throughout the body,” explains Phillip Popovich, PhD, chair of Neuroscience at Ohio State and director of Ohio State’s Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair.

“When the spinal cord’s neural output centers are damaged, the brain can no longer communicate with other organs in the body,” he says. “The brain can’t send its normal messages out through the spinal cord, and those messages that do get out are fragmented and scrambled.”

“We do need to fix the injured part of the spinal cord,” explains Dana McTigue, PhD, professor and vice chair of Research in Neuroscience and the Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair. “But we’re one of the only places committed to looking at the body as a whole.”

The team’s out-of-the-box thinking and research focus have revolutionized the way liver pathology and systemic changes are viewed after injury to the spinal cord. Access to willing expert research collaborators at Ohio State helped Dr. McTigue connect the dots to a major scientific discovery.

“I found a liver expert in Human Nutrition at Ohio State,” she says. “Together, we were the first to prove liver damage as an unexpected but direct systemic effect caused by spinal cord injury.”

While many SCI researchers focus on restoring a patient’s ability to walk again, Ohio State neuroscience teams are focused on equally important areas such as reducing mortality and disability rates and improving chronic health and quality of life

How the brain and spinal cord communicate with the immune system is important for virtually every human disease, including spinal cord injuries. Previous research by Ohio State has shown that spinal cord injuries can cause a “paralysis” of the immune system.

“Your immune system requires an intact and functional spinal cord,” explains Dr. Popovich. “When your spinal cord is injured, it takes the immune system offline.”

Spinal cord injuries often lead to secondary health conditions, including high blood pressure, incontinence, gut health issues, dysregulated metabolism leading to obesity and diabetes and an increased risk for developing life-threatening infections or sepsis.

“Patients with injured spinal cords are 37 times more likely to die of an infection than someone without an SCI. Largely because of these conditions, the high mortality rate for people with chronic spinal cord injuries hasn’t changed in more than 30 years. Until now,” says Jan Schwab, MD, PhD, professor of Neurology, physician-scientist and director of the SCI Division.

With a powerhouse research team, visionary leadership and a unique neuroscientific approach, Ohio State’s Neurological Institute is already developing measurable, replicable and unprecedented therapies to combat systemic and often life-threatening conditions in patients with SCI.

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New Belford Center One of First to Treat SCI as a Disease

Generous philanthropy has the power to improve the lives of patients with SCI and their families. And the smartest philanthropists are investing creatively, where they know they’ll see phenomenal return – at the Ohio State College of Medicine.

Thanks to a recent $10 million endowment from The Belford Family Charitable Fund, a new Belford Center for Spinal Cord Injury, in collaboration with Ohio State’s Neurological Institute, will be entirely dedicated to reducing systemic problems associated with SCI.

Initial conversations with the Belford family revolved around expanding quality of life opportunities for patients with SCI. “The Belfords wanted to offer a gift that would make a difference for spinal cord injury patients in their lifetime,” says Dr. Popovich. In a yearlong visioning process, proposals were created, revised, refined and solidified. Finally, plans for the center came into clear view.

Because of the Belford gift, the SCI team will be one of the first in the nation to study SCI as a “disease” affecting the entire body. It will provide sustaining support for leadership of the center, along with a current- use fund to support the center’s research mission. The gift will also support two endowed chairs in spinal cord injury and provide sustained support for research innovation.

“This gift will allow us to continue advancing basic and translational neuroscience research at the university, with a focus on supporting innovation to repair, protect and restore function to enhance recovery of the diseased or injured nervous system,” Dr. Schwab explains.

The Future of SCI Is in Our Hands

The SCI breakthrough is just beginning at Ohio State. The Belford Center will break ground in an already thriving community of forward-thinking researchers, committed to training a new generation of SCI leaders.

In the past decade, Ohio State’s Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair has trained more than 200 researchers worldwide, thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation. Many of these professionals trained at Ohio State are now leading other SCI research teams in the United States and abroad.

“Fellows and trainees want to come to Ohio State because they’re interested in making an impact,” Dr. McTigue explains. “We’re building on a critical mass of novel findings and innovative SCI research relevant to improving future patient care that you won’t find in many other places.”

She and her colleagues are convinced that better basic research drives better patient care – and better patient care ultimately not only leads to better patient outcomes but also drives better translational research.

One thing is certain – when it comes to SCI research, learning and clinical application, Ohio State is leading the way.

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