Scientific Meeting 2013

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What are the actual developments in spinal cord research? Wolfgang Illek searched for answers to this question at the annual Wings for Life Scientific Meeting.

Not even a nasty cold could stop me from driving 2.5 hours to Salzburg. It is time for the Wings for Life Scientific Meeting and like every year, I have been looking forward to it for months. My interest is not only business-related as I work for Wings for Life, but first and foremost I have personal reasons to get in touch with the spinal cord research specialists: I have been paralysed from the neck down for nearly ten years. I want to know how the prospects of healing are progressing and when my dream of a cure can become a reality.

Since my arrival, I have been feeling positive. Despite bright sunshine, every seat in the conference hall is filled. Over ninety scientists and physicians from all around the world came to present their current research projects and to share their knowledge. This is almost twice as many participants as last year. Could this be an initial sign of a strong progress in spinal cord research?

On the first morning, I attend lectures on neuroprotection, rehabilitation and inflammation. They are all really interesting, although they address acutely injured patients and therefore are not relevant for me. It seems that treatment options in this field are very close. I'm glad to hear this. One could only wish that, in the future, accident victims will not have to become dependent on the wheelchair because of spinal cord injury.

All results are relevant though, as findings from one field can be useful for another field, too. This is what Dr. Jessica Kwok, from the University of Cambridge, experienced. In a coffee break, she told me that her project was initially focused on acute spinal cord injury, but then they discovered much greater effects with chronic patients. Aha, there it is, concrete hope! The talk with Dr. Kwok gives me extra motivation to follow the complicated explanations of the speakers.

One of them, I find particularly interesting: Dr. Mark Kotter, who also comes from the University of Cambridge. Researchers recently healed paraplegic dogs with an injection of types of stem cells from the olfactory mucosa – a video of this is being circulated around the world. Dr. Kotter is hoping that a similar application in humans is possible. For now, I'm excited.

Could stem cells really be the solution? "Yes and No" says Prof. Michael Fehlings from the University of Toronto. Although there is a lot of potential in working with stem cells, there remains much more to explore, for example methods of how to exclude any side effects of using stem cells. Moreover, it will probably not be a single form of therapy, which ultimately leads to a breakthrough, but rather a combination of different approaches.

This seems to be a general trend in spinal cord research. More and more research projects benefit from a combination with other approaches. Like for example Prof. Wolfram Tetzlaff’s research. He is from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His work is focusing on trying to increase the growth of nerve cells and at the same time, trying to bridge the lesion in the spinal cord with stem cells from the skin. Through experiments in the laboratory, he found that nerve fibers do sprout back down.

Now, I am full of euphoria! All projects presented seem to provide promising solutions to the problem that I and three million others face. However, there are still only a few clinical studies and the majority of projects, which were presented today, are still at a very early stage. Researchers agree that ten to fifteen years is a realistic period of time until concrete steps will be taken towards the healing of spinal cord injury.

When you hear something like that, the optimistic feelings are of course subdued. However, Dr. Kotter provides an interesting comparison. About 200 years after Isaac Newton described the mechanical laws, mankind started to build aircrafts. In spinal cord research, it was only twenty years ago that we discovered that nerves are capable of regeneration; In other words, our first "aircraft parts" already exist. Sounds good? It is good! Although Dr. Kotter intentionally provided this rather bold metaphor, I know what he means: spinal cord research is moving fast!

And with this conviction I go back home. Although I am very tired and my head is humming after two days of highly complex presentations, I am happy, because I know that researchers are making every effort to make our dream a reality.

Photos: Stefan Voitl