U of L researchers get federal grants for spinal cord research

Published: February 18, 2008  |  Source: kentucky.com
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Elizabeth Fust was part of a crowd Monday honoring University of Louisville researchers who won $4.7 million in federal grants. For Fust, the ceremony was more personal, knowing she might someday benefit from the search for new spinal cord injury treatments.

Fust, paralyzed from the waist down since a spinal cord stroke two years ago, said the highly sought grants show cutting-edge research is taking place in her hometown.

“I’m thrilled that I don’t have to go somewhere else in the country … to see this science come to fruition,” the 40-year-old lawyer said in an interview.

The university said three separate grants from the National Institutes of Health will go for research at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, part of U of L’s medical campus. The studies will examine cell-based and drug-based therapies for spinal cord damage.

In a time of tight budgets, winning the NIH grants shows that U of L is “competing against the very best institutions and medical centers across the country, and we’re competing well,” U of L President James Ramsey said.

Ramsey also used the announcement to tout the “Bucks for Brains” program, which matches public money with private donations to attract top researchers to Kentucky universities. Some U of L researchers in the NIH-backed spinal cord research were lured by the program.

As state lawmakers in Frankfort confront a massive budget shortfall, Ramsey urged them to “be creative” in finding ways to fund research at Kentucky’s public universities. He noted that a portion of court costs are used for a research fund for spinal cord and head injuries.

Public universities and community colleges would share in the deep budget cuts being proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear in the face of sagging revenues and spiraling hikes in the cost of Medicaid and the state’s prison system. U of L’s portion of the proposed cuts would total $25 million.

Beshear has proposed $60 million for “Bucks for Brains,” and U of L’s share would be about $16 million, Ramsey said. U of L would like even more money for its top budget priority, Ramsey said, but the amount proposed “is important to keep the program moving forward.”

U of L officials said the NIH-backed research could help bring advances in treating spinal cord injuries.

Scott Whittemore, scientific director for the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, is the lead researcher for a $1.6 million, five-year grant to continue research on genetically engineered mouse cells aimed at regrowing Myelin. Myelin is the insulation around nerve fibers that allows them to conduct signals to and from the brain to the spinal cord and limbs.

One of Whittemore’s colleagues, assistant professor Qilin Cao, received nearly $1.6 million for work to encourage adult stem cells to regenerate myelin-producing cells in rats and fight the formation of scar tissue after spinal cord injury.

Theodore Hagg, the endowed chair in neurological surgery, was awarded more than $1.5 million to study how drugs based on very small molecules can be used to boost Neuron Regeneration in adult brains.

Their research could have broader applications beyond treating spinal cord patients.

Along with the NIH grants, the center also will receive a $300,000 grant from the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Head Injury Research Trust.

Fust said she had to relearn basic tasks after being stricken by a spinal cord stroke.

“One day I’m perfectly normal practicing law and going to courtrooms, and the next day I’m paralyzed,” she said.

Fust continues to make progress and said she welcomes any advances to make her more independent. She thinks the work done by U of L researchers could make that happen.

“Of course we’d all like to return to normal and have normal control of our bodies, and walk and hike and swim and do all the things we used to do,” she said. “But at this point any Functional gain is an advance.”

By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer