A tragic car accident helped turn Kentucky into a national hub for spinal cord research.
In 1993, state Sen. Tim Shaughnessy’s niece, Maggie Brooks, was paralyzed from the shoulders down when the speeding car she was riding in crashed.
Shaughnessy, a Louisville Democrat, proposed boosting speeding fines to pay for research. The General Assembly agreed in 1994 and began funneling $12.50 from each speeding fine collected toward spinal cord and head injury research.
Thus was born the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Head Injury Trust, which brought in $41.7million from fiscal years 1995 to 2009.
Before the trust, “very little was going on” in terms of spinal cord and brain injury research at the universities of Louisville and Kentucky, said Brooks’ uncle, Dr. James Shaughnessy, a dentist who heads the board that administers the fund. Today, both universities have research centers — which their leaders say were built and sustained partly by the fund.
“I’m very proud of my uncles and touched that they wanted to do it and pleased with the endeavors that came out of it,” said Brooks, who was 18 at the time of the accident and is now 35. “When I stop and think about it, it’s very humbling. … I’m hoping it’s positive for a lot of people and has far-reaching effects.”
“The impact of these injuries is devastating,” James Shaughnessy said. “But something good has come out of this.”
The trust board that James Shaughnessy heads has seven members appointed by the governor — two representing the UK College of Medicine, two representing UofL’s School of Medicine, a patient or family member, a representative of the Kentucky Medical Association and an at-large member.
Kentucky’s fund is an adaptation of a similar one in Florida. In the months after Brooks’ injury, her family learned about the Florida fund through Dr. Christopher Shields, a former University of Louisville neurosurgeon now affiliated with Norton Healthcare.
New York, New Jersey, Texas, California and Minnesota now have similar programs, said Dr. Stephen Gobel of BioInsights Consulting, who directs scientific review for grant applications.
Those who run Kentucky’s fund say such efforts make sense because studies show that motor vehicle accidents are the most common cause of spinal cord injuries.
The funding mechanism changed in 2002, and now the trust gets 6.5 percent of all court costs imposed on traffic, felony and misdemeanor cases.
James Shaughnessy said the money raised in Kentucky is dispersed based on scientific proposals by researchers at UofL and UK — meaning it isn’t always split equally between the two schools. In recent years, research grants to each school have ranged from $660,000 to $695,000.
“This isn’t a contest between the UofL and UK,” said James Shaughnessy. “We’re only going to fund the best science.”
An independent group reviews the grant proposals. Evaluators consider many criteria, such as whether a study addresses an important problem and is innovative. Priority is given to certain types of studies, such as those that may lead to restoring compromised circuitry in the spinal cord or brain and those that evaluate the effectiveness of treatments that protect against the cascade of secondary problems.
In addition to funding studies, the trust also pays for post-doctoral fellowships, faculty development and seminars.
James Shaughnessy and Shields said the trust has been especially effective in combination with Bucks for Brains, which allows state universities to attract top researchers. Together, they said, the programs have helped build two thriving centers on spinal cord research in the past two decades.
That sentiment was echoed by Susan Howley, executive vice president for research at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a New Jersey-based organization that funds spinal cord research and advocates for patients. “Kentucky really made something out of nothing,” she said.
Brooks, meanwhile, has built a meaningful life. She lives with her parents and uses a power wheelchair to get around. She and her brother run the family business, Tradewinds, a gift and home décor store in Chenoweth Square in Louisville.
Brooks said she always wants research “to go faster,” but remains optimistic it may help her someday. She said being paralyzed “is not something you get used to,” but she tries to stay positive.
“You do the best you can with what you have,” she said. “It’s a matter of adapting and moving forward.”
By Laura Ungar
Reporter Laura Ungar can be reached at (502) 582-7190.