Work in Sports
In good hands
Miami Project searching for paralysis cure
Posted: Saturday January 29, 2000 04:59 PM
MIAMI (AP) -- Sitting up with the help of a back brace, Derrick Thomas anxiously awaits the arrival of his neurosurgeon every day.
Therapists, nurses, family and friends shuffle in and out of the hospital room several times before Dr. Barth Green shows up.
Thomas has a lot of questions, but Green can't answer all of them. He simply doesn't know if the star linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs -- paralyzed from the chest down following a deadly car crash -- will be able to walk again.
Without lying or offering false hope, Green tells Thomas about the advances in treating spinal cord injuries. Many of them are owed to the Miami Project.
The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which Green founded in 1985, is the world's largest research center dedicated to finding better treatment -- and ultimately a cure -- for paralysis that results from spinal cord injury.
Doctors think they are closing in on a cure.
"It's no longer if, it's when," Green said.
In the last few years, the Miami Project has developed a muscle-stimulation device that allows people with spinal cord injuries to walk, a method that allows paralyzed men to have children and computer technology to aid in monitoring neurological activity in the spinal cord during surgery.
Green says the mere mention of this kind of progress just 10 years ago would have made him the laughing stock of the medical community.
"To talk about curing paralysis you either had to be weird or stoned or a liar," Green said.
Spinal cord injury occurs when the nerves of the spinal cord are damaged, often resulting from the fractured vertebrae crushing the cord. Scientists have been unable to get the nerves to repair themselves.
Just recently, though, scientists identified a gene that prevents the regeneration. Dubbed "Nogo" because of its inhibiting effect, the gene produces a protein that prevents nerve-cell connections in the central nervous system from regenerating after they are cut. Experiments in rats showed that when the protein is blocked, the spinal cord can repair itself.
Neurologists hailed the work as a landmark step that that might someday help the 250,000 paralyzed Americans walk again.
"I think we're finally starting to figure out the important pieces to the puzzle," said Dalton Dietrich, neurosurgeon and scientific director at the Miami Project. "We probably are not going to find some magic bullet, where we all of a sudden discover something that we can give to the patient and he gets up and walks.
"When are we going to cure paralysis? I don't know. Are we going to cure it in five years? I hope so."
So does Marc Buoniconti, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since a football injury in 1985.
Buoniconti, the son of former Miami Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti, was hurt playing football at The Citadel. Frustrated by the lack of knowledge and research surrounding spinal cord injuries, Nick Buoniconti helped create the Miami Project.
"How many Christopher Reeves and Derrick Thomases is it going to take to get this thing solved," Marc Buoniconti said. "Enough is enough already."
Scientists have developed a drug that might help avoid serious spinal cord damage soon after an accident. Interleukin-10, or IL-10, is an anti-inflammatory that has proved effective in animals, Dietrich said.
Inflammation causes as much damage -- if not more -- than the initial trauma of an injury to the spinal cord. Doctors hope IL-10 will be available this year.
"The sky's the limit in terms of what we think we're going to be able to accomplish," Dietrich said.