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Named for actor Christopher Reeve and California philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith, the Reeve-Irvine Research Center has been established to study injuries to and diseases of the spinal cord which result in paralysis or other loss of neurological functioning, with an emphasis on developing possible therapies that can promote the recovery and repair of neurological function between the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system. The Center will accommodate faculty and research activities in brain aging, brain and spinal-cord injury, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, neurodevelopment disorders and schizophrenia. The basic research could also yield advances in treating other neurological maladies, including addiction, depression and suicide, Huntington's, learning disabilities, memory loss, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, violence, and the after-effects of stroke. The ultimate goal of the Center is to find a cure for neurological damage.
The Center is committed to an international perspective promoting the coordination and cooperation of scientists around the world. It will become a focal point for contact and exchange of information by neuroscience researchers and neurologists around the world. The comprehensive program of basic research at the Center will include a clinic for evaluation, testing, treatment and follow-up of paralyzed patients. New treatment modalities identified by researchers will be available to selected patients and volunteers.
Joan Irvine Smith, a noted horsewoman, says she was inspired to help create the new center at UCI after learning of Reeve's courage following his show-jumping accident in May of 1995, especially because Reeve has held no blame for the horse that threw him. "I thought it was a wonderful thing to have this attitude," Smith says. "I've ridden for years, had horse accidents and four or five concussions. I've done a lot of things where I might have had the same thing happen to me. I thought, there but for the Grace of God go I. It could have happened to me."
Speaking at An Evening Under the Stars, Reeve says the project to create such a unique research facility was unbelievable even to him. "When we first were going through the mail, we get this little pink slip of paper, and it says a woman named Joan Smith wants to give you guys a million dollars. Well, I get a lot of crazy mail. We filed that one away in the crazy pile. And then my assistant Michael said, 'Don't you think that's worth a return call?' So, we called her, and we talked about research, we talked about the future.
"I view this research effort and this program as a prototype for future research centers worldwide. It is a critical step in the strategic plan to coordinate all spinal-cord research efforts." Reeve, who was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Paralysis Association (APA) on May 10, 1996, also declares, "I am amazed that I get top billing; this really should be the Joan Irvine Smith (Christopher Reeve) Research Center. "The formation of this Reeve-Irvine Research Center is not just for me or for people with spinal-cord injuries," he says. "It's for all of us. I can go into any room in America, or really any room in the world, and the fact is that any individual either has, or knows someone who has, a problem of the brain or central nervous system. Spinal-cord problems are all of our problems, and the only way that we can ever solve them is by working together."
The Reeve-Irvine Research Center was brought into being by a grant of $1 million from the Joan Irvine Smith & Athalie R. Clarke Foundation to create it in conjunction with Christopher Reeve, UCI and the APA. The terms of the grant require the University to raise an additional $2 million. The funds raised will be directly committed to endow a faculty chair and to provide funding to support that person's efforts and the work of other researchers and research teams. In planning for the Center, it has been anticipated that on conclusion of the initial campaign for $3 million, a second campaign will be mounted to secure the additional funding necessary for the Center to become the foremost paralysis research effort in the world. "The Center will grow as problems and resources come together," says Dr. Laurel Wilkening, dean of UCI. "We hope to ultimately raise $5 million, private and federal, strictly to focus on research. Yet, we at UCI cannot wait for public funding." And so An Evening Under the Stars and the Oaks International were held.
Mrs. Smith, chairperson of the Joan Irvine Smith & Athalie R. Clarke Foundation, has also pledged to donate the proceeds from this year's Oaks International Classic, which for the past five years has been held as a benefit for the UCI Medical Center, to support the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. Continuing the weekend's show of generosity, as a symbol of their new-found friendship, Smith also gave Reeve a two-year-old mare named Icon to begin his own horse-breeding program. An Evening Under the Stars, a dinner which was attended by such celebrities as Joan Rivers and Robin Williams, also included an inspirational show by Renee Bondi and an auction that began as a silent auction and then had prices raised even higher by celebrity auctioneer Gordon Jump, well-known as the May Tag repairman. Combined with the Oaks International Classic, these events raised funds well past the goal of the weekend to reach the half-way mark for funding the Center.
These events show that "community and university partnership is the key to successful outcome," as affirmed by Thomas Cesario, dean of the UCI College of Medicine. "Our lives are a partnership between work and home, and we are working to attain goals critical to function in the home. There are many more steps, hurdles even. Scientists need moral support. It's frustrating everyday, to work 14-hour days on low salary [while it can take years for a breakthrough]. Scientists need financial and political support for research." Although it is hoped that the Center with its spirit of cooperation will increase the rate of breakthroughs in research, Reeve admits that "it's gonna be hard and it isn't gonna happen as fast as we would like it to, but the great thing with this kind of initiative is it sends a very clear message to the scientific community, as well as to the public, that the time is now where they all have to work together. The days of individuals working alone in laboratories underfunded and underappreciated are now over. We are going to bring them out into the light, we are going to honor them, we are going to get them to share information. We are going to get them all connected the same way that we in the civilian population are all connected, and by doing that, by taking advantage of the fact that we live in a Global Village, we will achieve things that were considered absolutely impossible 5 years ago. I mean, 3 years ago, it would have been impossible to believe that I would be here talking to you."
At the time of his accident, Reeve received a C2-level injury, which is an injury to the second cervical vertebra located in the neck. Soon afterwards, he says he saw a handbook written in 1990 that "didn't even mention anyone higher than C4 because 70 percent of them didn't live longer than five days. I'm very lucky my injury happened at a time when treatment and surgery had improved. "And what made the difference [in surviving the injury] was research. But just as we have said before, just keeping people alive is not enough, it is the quality of their lives and I feel absolutely certain that, with the kind of bravery of Joan Smith and everyone at UCI are showing, the future is going to be a lot brighter than it was even a year or two ago. We're together and together we make a huge difference in all our lives. We are on the threshold of a new era of cooperation in research in a field where a cure was thought impossible. Joan Irvine Smith is the kind of can-do person who refuses to accept that and the first step toward healing, toward a cure, is to refute that it's impossible."
In addition to setting up the Center, the Christopher Reeve Research Medal will be awarded annually with an accompanying $50,000 cash prize at the Oaks International Classic to the investigator whose efforts have significantly advanced the field. Martin E. Schwab, PhD is the first-ever recipient of the Medal. He currently directs the Brain Research Institute at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The Medal was presented to Schwab by Christopher and Dana Reeve, with Mrs. Smith presenting the check, in recognition of his pioneering, scientific work in nerve regeneration and the development of possible therapies for treatment of spinal-cord injuries, during a special noon luncheon ceremony at the Oaks International Classic. Speaking of the Center's research goals, Schwab says, "It is hard to answer how long it will take. The last five have been significant, the next five may bring treatment. Cure' is a different term. To achieve respiration, bladder control, walking (but with structure like rails), these are all goals. Public awareness generates resources. A special chair[person] like Reeve attracts new people. That's very important, it is important for researchers to feel support." Schwab says that one extremely important thing Reeve does, besides bringing attention to this specific issue, is that he is saying to others, "Don't give up. Attitude is very important."
Schwab is credited with discovering that the central nervous system has certain molecules that inhibit growth and appear to retard regeneration. He further found a way to block this molecular inhibition so that the damaged spinal cord in rats can partially regenerate an the animals can recover some motor function. According to Reeve, "He has accomplished something that countermanded thousands of years of evolution. We all know that the peripheral nervous system will regenerate, if you were for example to lose a hand, it could be reattached and you could regain feeling and movement." The brain, spinal cord and central nervous system do not spontaneously regenerate.
At the APA Research Consortium on Spinal-Cord Injury last fall, Schwab presented his studies on the inflammatory reaction in the spinal cord in the early hours after a trauma has occurred. He confirmed that the events in the injured cord are of greater magnitude than those in the brain. "The inflammatory response at the spinal-cord lesion site is very important and until now almost totally overlooked," he says. "The pathophysiological significance of inflammation and the specific subtypes of inflammatory cells are almost completely unknown good, bad or neutral."
Many celebrities came to show their support for the Center. Mary Steenburgen, an actor who has ridden "a little bit but mostly in the movies chasing trains," arrived at the Oaks International with actor-husband Ted Danson. "One of the things that's really exciting is that there's going to be a sharing of information because a lot of what happens is, [as] we have found in our work [with Pediatric AIDS], . . . people are doing different research throughout the world but they don't necessarily share information with each other. It's not in their best interests to because of the way things are structured financially in terms of their grants, so it slows down the progress. What they're structuring here is a real sharing of information and scientists, so hopefully the research will be sped up by the fact that they are all helping each other out. It is the making [sharing information] to be in their best interests, that's part of what's so exciting about this grant. I think Chris is especially excited about that."
"Chris is a friend of ours," says Danson, "and we have worked with him and Joan Irvine Smith on the American Oceans Campaign before this. By giving grants to researchers that then every year they have to share their discoveries, you encourage people to put their heads together and work together, which doesn't always happen in the scientific community. It's smart. Money spent well.
"I grew up on horses in Arizona. I didn't realize they could actually jump! They were chasing cows where I came from," Danson says laughing, but turns serious while referring to Reeve's accident. "When you see a horse come to a grinding halt it is very scary, they are incredible athletes."
As part of the College of Medicine at UCI, the Center is planned to be located within the University's recently dedicated Center for Health Sciences in the William J. Gillespie Neurosciences Research Facility, slated to open in March 1997. The yet-to-be named scientist-director for the Center will be selected by a board of research advisors whose members will be drawn from other academic institutions, private industry and professional and governmental organizations and foundations. The board will include member representatives of Mr. and Mrs. Reeve, Mrs. Smith, Dr. Cesario, and the Science Advisory Council of the APA.
UCI is noted for the quality of both its research and its clinical programs; the relationship between the two is critical for work in paralysis. The Center will complement existing neuroscience work being done at UCI. This includes work being done by Arthur Lander, a molecular neurobiologist who came last year to UCI from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Specifically, he researches neural growth and repair. He notes that some vertebrates, like fish and salamanders, can re-grow new spinal cords, unlike humans. "Maybe it's just an accident that we lost the ability to regenerate." He explains, however, that "it's not good enough just to get them to grow, you've got to get them to connect to the right targets." Lander also would like to answer questions such as why nerve fibers will grow in a fetus but won't grow in an adult, and why the human body responds to a spinal-cord injury over the first few days with swelling and other changes that seem to do even more damage than the initial injury. Carl W. Cotman, PhD, also of UCI, specializes in the recovery of function after injury. He says, "The intensity of the inflammatory response in the spinal cord is far greater than that in the brain. Moreover, it appears to be a fairly prolonged response, suggesting a wide window of opportunity, and in fact need, for intervention than might have been originally thought."
Actor Jane Seymour, who cannot ride seriously at the moment because of her television contract, attended both fundraising events. "Chris contacted me to help and I will be the National Chair. He is very positive. Politicians and tax dollars are most importantly needed to support geniuses.
"My two daughters show jump. At first, I wanted to take the horses away but decided that under controlled circumstances and with good horses, it's alright. Chris loves the sport still. This is his first time at an event since the accident; my husband [Jim Keach] said it's freaking him out a little. Even though it was a freak accident, I suspect it's a bit overwhelming." Danson, however, later commented that "he didn't look nervous or jittery to me."
Seymour generously donated several items to the auction, including her kitten, which was valued as priceless. Another precious item was a photograph of Seymour with Christopher Reeve from the movie Somewhere in Time. "While making a little movie about 16 years ago, Chris and I developed a special bond. He's my best friend, in terms of actors. I named one of my twins after Chris."
Seymour points out that, even with Reeve's noted eloquence, "Chris doesn't use speech to wow,' but he is empowered to help all of us. In fact, Chris will be directing an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and a movie. Medicine Woman is going to produce a special episode dealing with spinal-cord injury. Of course, the injury will not be as severe because one would not have survived in those times." These days, survivors of spinal-cord injuries, in general, live a near-average life span. Originally simply taught the value of acceptance, developments in neuroregeneration studies in this decade have led to the recognition that paraplegics have reason to hope and make plans for recovery of lost function. Laurel Wilkening, dean of UCI, quoted her childhood friend Judy Lovelace, who suffered a spinal-cord injury 10 years ago, as telling her, "Our lives are so different for those of us who have a spinal-cord injury that we work everyday just to live. What we forget is that we should be looking at the future and at the big picture. Christopher Reeve has given us hope." Christopher Reeve must go through physical therapy 8-hours a day, and he has increased his breathing ability so that he can be without a respirator for up to 90 minutes. An estimated 50 million Americans are affected by disease or disorders of the spinal-cord and brain. More than 90 percent of the American population has experienced or will experience the effects of brain-related, mental, emotional or behavioral, disease, disorder or injury at some point in their lives. "Somebody came up to my table a little while ago," Reeve said at An Evening Under the Stars, "and used a word that I had never heard before, but it really struck me, Don't forget that everybody in this room are called TABs.' I said, What's a TAB?' Temporarily Able-Bodied.' That's a little harsh, but it's also true. Anything can happen to anyone. And there really is only one degree of separation between any of us. We are a family and we all have value." Jane Seymour agrees, "We are all really TABs, one can't take anything for granted, therefore we all need to take part actively. Eighty million dollars [is spent] to care [for people suffering from paralysis] but only $40 million is spent on research." While many researchers are working on the immediate effects in the hours after an injury occurs, there are many who have been in chairs for years that need help. The Center hopes to speed the recovery of all survivors of spinal-cord injuries.
Joan Irvine Smith can best summarize the effort it takes to make the goals of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center a reality: "It's very important for us to have a great deal of patience and perseverance, and to raise a lot of money because it's going to take that to have the opportunity for scientists around the world to be able to coordinate their scientific findings toward this end. In the past, it was felt that any type of recovery was an impossible dream. Today, we are on the verge of experiencing the conquest of an impossible dream."
article and photography by Diana V. Seay
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