© Martin Lugger

Interview: Wings for Life 10 Years

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Wings for Life was founded in July 2004 with the aim of finding a cure for spinal cord injury. We talked to our co-founder, Heinz Kinigadner, and our scientific director, Jan Schwab, about the early days, the developments in research and the outlook for the future.

Why did you decide to establish a spinal cord research foundation?

Kinigadner: Right after my son Hannes had his spinal cord injured in an accident, we contacted everyone around the globe who might be able to help us, from the Miami project in Florida to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. In doing so, we learned that many good discoveries had been made in basic research, but lack of funding meant they all fell by the wayside. The scientists said, unanimously, that there was not enough money to translate these findings into clinical studies, neither from the government nor from other parties. We came to the conclusion that we needed to be proactive and establish a charity to help accelerate progress.   

How do you come up with the name “Wings for Life”?

Kinigadner: Today, patients with spinal cord injury are pretty much guaranteed survival, but in a life affected by their disability, by their broken wing. In this respect, the name Wings for Life came to our mind.  

Prof. Dr. Dr. Schwab helped establish the foundation. How did this collaboration start?

Kinigadner: That happened through my sports network. Of the many phone calls we got after Hannes’s accident, one was from Alfie Cox, a former teammate of the Paris-Dakar Rally. He told me about a young German man who had taken part in one of his adventure tours a few weeks earlier. Alfie told me that this man was an expert in spinal cord research and that I should call him. A few days later, Jan Schwab arrived in Salzburg.  

What happened in the early days?

Schwab: There was a really strong feeling of euphoria, of legitimate hope. The first year was kind of an orientation period when we established a structure, organizing Wings for Life in the most effective way. If we wanted to ensure the best chances of success for the patients, we were convinced, right from the beginning, that we needed to support scientists on a global scale; this could be compared to Formula One, in which you try to get the best engine, the best drivers and the best constructor, irrespective of nationality. And we travelled a lot to survey potential treatments, but none of them seemed to be as promising as original hoped.

What was the state of scientific knowledge at that stage?

Schwab: At the time, there were only a few established pioneers in spinal cord research. First clinical networks started. But true translational approaches, which ensure the transfer from preclinical research into clinical studies with patients, were little more than fledgling operations because there were barely any financial-support programs for clinical studies in spinal cord research.

What approaches is Wings for Life taking to find a cure?

Schwab: Wings for Life supports all approaches, in various stages of development, which are promising for the patients. Anything from molecular-pharmacological approaches to stem cells, from neuroprotection to neuroregeneration, and from basic research to clinical studies.
How much progress has been made over the years?

Schwab:  Knowledge of the molecular level increased exponentially over the last couple of years, but we’ve also seen some setbacks, especially at the clinical stage. Success in preclinical experiments does not necessarily pay off in the clinics, a problem identified by scientists who are working hard to optimize this translation.

We funded already a few clinical studies, and, now, we are about to start funding a bigger clinical-intervention study.  

Would you like to name a few successful research projects?

Schwab: The electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, which has its seeds partly in Austria, has been quite successful. Currently, in the US, there is a pilot study, which is also showing promising results with chronically injured patients.  

Then, I would like to name a project of Zhigang He from Boston, a rock star in spinal cord research, who achieved unprecedented nerve regeneration by blocking an enzyme called PTEN.

The third project to mention deals with immune paralysis. A spinal cord injury not only causes loss of movement or sensation, but it also causes paralysis of the immune system. In turn, this immune paralysis makes the patients vulnerable to infections, and infections cost valuable neurological regeneration.    

Of course, there are lots more.

Are you satisfied with the developments?

Kinigadner:  Today, we are one of the most renowned and well-positioned foundations in spinal cord research. We can now see the basic pattern of this huge puzzle, and even though there are important pieces missing, we have achieved a lot.

But I’ll only be truly happy on the day when patients’ quality of life has dramatically improved. When they can move their fingers or their toes; when they can control their bladder or feel their body again.  

What will happen in the future? When do you expect the breakthrough?

Schwab: We will see a lot more clinical-intervention studies, studies that are well prepared and help to gain even more important knowledge. Unfortunately I cannot give a precise answer of when we will find the cure, partly because we do not want to give false expectations, and partly because it is a very difficult thing to predict.  But we are working as quickly and accurately as possible to bring that day around as soon as possible.