MSFHR-RHI partnership a key investment in BC spinal cord injury research

Spinal cord injury and its accompanying loss of mobility have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of more than 86,000 Canadians.

While paralysis is the most widely recognized symptom, numerous secondary complications such as neuropathic pain, pressure ulcers, bladder infections, and cardiovascular dysfunction present complex care needs for individuals and their families.

Although these conditions remain difficult to treat, advances in research have led to therapeutic breakthroughs that are changing what it means to live with spinal cord injury.

At the leading edge of research into spinal cord injury is the Rick Hansen Institute (RHI). Based at Vancouver’s Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, RHI is committed to accelerating the translation of discoveries and best practices into improved treatments for people with spinal cord injuries.

RHI oversees several initiatives that support research collaboration across the spinal cord injury community.

The RHI Global Research Platform currently runs multi-site studies in over 40 locations across Canada and develops collaboration with research groups in the United States, Europe, Australia, China, and Israel. The Rick Hansen Spinal Cord Injury Registry collects data and experiences from more than 4,000 Canadians, providing an invaluable resource for researchers and clinicians seeking to better understand spinal cord injury. In addition, RHI recently partnered with facilities in China, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel to expand the registry in those locations.

“The Rick Hansen Institute isn’t really an institute – it’s a network,” says Bill Barrable, chief executive officer of RHI. “It’s really about bringing together smart people, aggregating patients, doing clinical trials and best practice implementation with a guided objective of reducing paralysis and its impact.”

“One of the best investments that we could make”

An important part of RHI’s commitment to research has been its ongoing partnership with MSFHR to jointly fund BC researchers studying spinal cord injury and related conditions.

 “I think the Michael Smith awards are one of the best investments that we could make in terms of research in this province,” says Barrable. “To build that career path, to bring young people into science at an early stage and in a directed fashion by leveraging funds – it’s a very smart way to invest in people, in knowledge, in translation which ultimately leads to better outcomes for patients here and elsewhere.”

Since 2006, the organizations have partnered to support four researchers, including 2014 Scholar Award recipients Christopher West and John Kramer.

Kramer and West are focused on understanding specific secondary complications that affect individuals living with spinal cord injury.

West is studying how the heart changes after spinal cord injury and how these changes potentially influence illness and mortality. His research also seeks to understand the role of exercise in offsetting dysfunction of the heart after spinal cord injury.

The support of the Rick Hansen Institute will open the door to opportunities that will enhance the scope and impact of his research.

“If, for example, I wanted to look at a very large clinical trial to look at the effects of a particular type of exercise training, by being partnered with the Rick Hansen Institute, I can access other research centres across the country and really expand the number of participants I can recruit and the impact my research can have,” says West.

Kramer, who was also co-funded by RHI as a 2008 MSFHR Trainee, is studying neuropathic pain. These severe pain symptoms, which originate in parts of the body affected by paralysis, can be highly debilitating to individuals living with spinal cord injury. Kramer hopes his work to understand the causes of this pain will point the way to better treatments.

He credits the partnership for increasing his access to invaluable research resources such as the Rick Hansen Spinal Cord Injury Registry.

“It’s a fantastic partnership because this is the premier research institute that is reaching the greatest number of Canadians with spinal cord injury, so you immediately have these connections and the resources as well,” says Kramer.

“I think these partnered awards have been how I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten as far as my research goes and the position that I have now.”

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