The Reeve Foundation launches The Big Idea to raise US$15 million for spinal cord injury research


On the 10-Year anniversary of actor’s Christopher Reeve’s death, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation has launched the “The Big Idea” campaign to raise $15 million for the next phase of epidural stimulation (for the management of spinal cord injury) research. Reeve, who was best known for his role as Superman, sustained a spinal cord injury in a horse-riding accident in 1995 that resulted in quadriplegia and subsequently sought to find effective treatments for chronic spinal cord injuries.

A press release reports that the Big Idea builds on an initial study, which showed that four young men who had been paralysed for years were able to voluntarily move their legs and bear weight as a result of epidural stimulation of the lower spinal cord, by expanding the study to include 36 participants to explore the efficacy of epidural stimulation in improving the autonomic functions lost with a spinal cord injury, including bladder, bowel and sexual function, as well as temperature regulation, cardiovascular and respiratory function. Commonly known as “secondary complications” of paralysis, these health complications, at times, result in infections, frequent medical visits and hospitalisations, as well as a decrease in quality of life and independence. Additionally, the ability to stand and control voluntary leg movements below the level of injury in the presence of epidural stimulation will also be evaluated.

The US$15 million raised by the Reeve Foundation will cover expenses related to the five-year study, including the research, data collection and advocacy work necessary to expedite epidural stimulation to the clinic. Over the course of the five years, all 36 participants will be implanted and trained, as well as evaluated post-intervention. The Big Idea will also track the financial benefits related to medical and hospitalisation expenses that are expected to be reduced as a result of the intervention. To jumpstart fundraising efforts, the Reeve Foundation has enlisted a network of donors, including longstanding supporters, board members and partners. To date, the Reeve Foundation has raised $5 million to fund The Big Idea with the goal of $15 million for the entire campaign.

The press release reports that epidural stimulation, in the context of paralysis of the lower extremities, is the application of continuous electrical current, at varying frequencies and intensities to specific locations on the lumbosacral spinal cord, corresponding to the dense neural bundles that largely control movement of the hips, knees, ankles and toes. The intervention mimics signals the brain normally transmits to reengage the spine’s neural network and initiate movement. The results were unexpected, leading researchers to speculate that some pathways may be intact post-injury and therefore able to facilitate this unprecedented recovery.

“Epidural stimulation has challenged what it means to be diagnosed with a complete injury and confirmed that recovery is possible even years following trauma. The Big Idea is a culmination of decades of basic science and the commitment of researchers to advance promising therapies,” says Susan Harkema, principal investigator on The Big Idea study, University of Louisville, USA, professor and co-director of KSCIRC, director of the Reeve Foundation’s NeuroRecovery Network. The University of Louisville will also act as the principal site conducting the research throughout The Big Idea study.