The most important day of the year

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Mountains of paper files, spinning heads and countless cups of coffee. End of March, the board and scientific directors of Wings for Life were holding a one-day-meeting to discuss which research projects are going to be funded in the coming period. We asked the decision-makers the following questions:

What makes this day so exciting?
Anita Gerhardter, CEO of Wings for Life:
For us, this day is the most important of the whole year. Together with our scientific directors the Wings for Life board made the final decision on how many and which research projects are going to be supported with our donations.
This final selection follows a process of several months of preparation. All project applications we receive go through a strict selection process. Firstly, applications are certificated by independent experts from around the world. These peer-reviews are then given to our scientific advisory body – I like to call them ‘rock stars of spinal cord injury research’. Based on their recommendations, we finally identify and select the most promising projects.

Can you name the criteria after which Wings for Life selects its projects?
Prof. Dr. Ludwig Aigner, neurobiologist, scientific director of Wings for Life:
With our financial resources, we always try to cover a wide range of different projects. The most important criteria is that all our funded projects correspond to the Foundation's mission; to cure spinal cord injury. Academic excellence, likelihood of success and the applicability to patients are the most important criteria.

How many projects does Wings for Life finance in 2013?
Prof. Dr. Dr. Jan Schwab, neurologist, scientific director of Wings for Life:
I am pleased to say that Wings for Life has established itself as an essential engine of spinal cord injury research. The number of funded projects grows each year. We will have 18 new projects, bringing us to a total of 27 projects in 2013/2014. This number correlates with the increasing donations that we are receiving, and I would like to thank all our donors.

How many of the funded projects focus on recently injured patients and how many on chronically concerned patients?
Prof. Dr. Ludwig Aigner, neurobiologist, scientific director of Wings for Life:
About two thirds of our projects focus on recently injured people but one should not generalize. This research will also bring important insights into the treatment of those who have been chronically injured.

Does Wings for Life fund clinical trials in 2013?
Prof. Dr. Ludwig Aigner, neurobiologist, scientific director of Wings for Life:
In this funding-period two new clinical trials have been added alongside those that we already fund, and these projects are often funded over a longer period of time. The first one is based on a highly innovative approach; it tries to answer the question of why some patients achieve better spontaneous recovery than others. It is believed that genetics play a crucial role here and the clinical study aims to identify genes responsible for that. The second new clinical study is working in the field of neuro-urology. In addition to the restriction of movement, spinal cord injured people also have to deal with urological problems, which are the focus of this study.

Why are there so many projects in fundamental and preclinical research?
Prof. Dr. Dr. Jan Schwab, neurologist, scientific director of Wings for Life:
Spinal cord injury research remains a very young field. Therefore we still have to answer a lot of fundamental questions, also in terms of sustainability and security for patients. Moreover, the complexity of a project and thus its feasibility increases disproportionately when it moves towards a clinical stage.

What is your personal conclusion of today?
Anita Gerhardter, CEO of Wings for Life:
We are very optimistic about this funding-period because we selected some high profile and promising research projects. This is another step towards our big goal. It is also pleasing that in the field of spinal cord injury research, more and more progress is being made. This is shown by the fact that this year we have received nearly twice as many applications for funding (142) than in previous years.
Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that there is still a long way ahead of us and that there is still much more to be done. Spinal cord research depends on private fundraising initiatives and donors. Therefore, money remains a strong limiting factor in the pace of our progress.

Note: Summaries (abstracts) of our new research projects will be published from June onwards, just follow the link Research.