"I am always busy doing research"
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Armin Curt has devoted more than 22 years of his life to finding a cure for spinal cord injury. In this interview, the professor shares with us what he has learnt from his many patients and how agonising it is for him as a doctor that he hasn’t as yet been able to cure them.
Professor Curt, why did you choose to specialise in spinal cord injury?
It happened by chance, actually. I hadn’t been especially interested in spinal cord injury until I got to hear of the Paraplegic Centre in Zurich. After that I thought it would definitely be an advantage for me as a neurologist to gain some experience there for a year. I immediately found the work fascinating and I’ve been there now for 22 years.
Are you still as passionate now as when you started?
I would say even more so. We have 40 beds for paralysed patients at the Balgrist University Hospital. I’ve known many of my patients for 20 years. I’ve learnt a lot and have enjoyed plenty of success. We can now rehabilitate patients with full paralysis well. They can become independent, look after themselves and live as long as the ablebodied. But the fact that we can’t yet cure spinal cord injury is deeply troubling and the motivation I need to come into work every day.
How are your research projects different from others?
It’s important for me to focus on clinical, translational research. Results from the basic research are then carried over into pre-clinical development programmes. Having contact with the patients is very important for me. Having contact with the patients is also very important for me, so I insist my students work with patients regularly to get a real picture of paralysis. They need to know what they’re researching and why, and to understand what it means to live with spinal cord injury.
What progress has spinal cord research made generally?
In the past, the view was that the spinal cord is best left alone. It was seen as too dangerous and the consequences too unpredictable. In one study, we introduced stem cells into the spinal cord and now we know that we don’t have to leave the spinal cord alone, even in cases of spinal cord injury. There is something we can do. We’ve also come a long way in how we prepare studies. We understand the typical course of events better, and very soon after an accident we are able to predict what will happen to a patient. And we know more about how those patients will respond to the various treatments available. The EMSCI – a European network – is very good now and everything is working well. We’re just waiting for the “magic intervention” to come to light so that we can get going.
What does Wings for Life mean to you?
Research is expensive, complex and takes a long time, so it’s incredibly important to have someone on board who can make it all go faster. That doesn’t mean that the process is less rigorous, but it does mean that we can react more quickly and sponsor more selectively. The ability of Wings for Life to respond flexibly and adequately is much greater than elsewhere, which also gives us hope.
Do you ever actually switch off?
People working in basic research and clinics don’t work from 8 to 5. I often work long days. I do 60 hours a week on average, chiefly because there’s so much exciting stuff to work on. My wife is very generous on that score. We try to do outdoor sports with our two sons on a regular basis. This may often involve hiking or skiing, but because of my profession, I am always aware of the dangers, on the slopes in particular, and that something might happen … But I manage to switch off and enjoy the moment.
What is the meaning of happiness for you?
For me personally, happiness means being healthy and having a good relationship and family. But happiness can be interpreted in many different ways. Contrary to popular opinion, paraplegic centres are not depression wards. According to one large study, the risk of depression is no greater among paraplegics than it is in the rest of the population. Isn’t that amazing? Of course some people are sad or angry that it’s happened to them. But after a period of time, many are able to accept their fate. The atmosphere and interaction among spinal cord injury patients isn’t negative. They’re good listeners and in fine mental shape. They’re an interesting and special group of people who impress me deeply.
Armin Curt Medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Centre at the University of Zurich and Balgrist University Hospital. He has been a member of the Wings for Life advisory board for many years and this year he also became clinical director.