This issue of Connections features some great articles including an interview with highly esteemed Professor James Fawcett, a brief introduction to one of our clinical trials and the latest fundraising news.
A Lifetime of Research
An Interview with Professor James Fawcett
We catch up with Professor James Fawcett who has dedicated his academic life to research into spinal cord injury (SCI).
Can you tell us about your early career?
I started as a medic in St Thomas’ Hospital in London, before moving into the research field. I completed my PhD in neurodevelopment, convinced that the repair of neurons (nerve cells) in the spinal cord was different to how they developed.
I joined the scientific committee of Spinal Research in 1980 and became chairman in the early 1990s.
What was the understanding of SCI at that time?
There were a number of significant breakthroughs being made at that time including the first possibilities of regenerative treatments such as NogoA antibodies and chondroitinase (special bacterial enzyme) to break down scarring in the spinal cord.
In the subsequent decades, advancements in research have identified more ways to restore spinal cord function through a better understanding of stem cell biology, genetic engineering and spinal stimulation.
Why is it so difficult to repair the spinal cord?
Mammals have evolved to prevent regeneration in the central nervous system – we’re essentially trying to reverse evolution.
Despite this, there have been several breakthroughs in the last 20 years. These include the discovery that nerve regeneration is not only prevented by inhibitory molecules but also there are changes in the nerve cells themselves both when they become mature and after damage to the spinal cord.
We also found that removal of certain molecules promoted nerve regeneration and reduced neuropathic pain. Stem cell transplantation has also shown considerable promise, but the areas which excite me the most are axonal (nerve cell fibres) regeneration, plasticity (new nerve connections), and investigating why neurons (nerve cells) lose their ability to regenerate as they mature.
What are the main obstacles restricting progress?
There are a number of promising lines in science, but the next challenge is to take them into clinical trials. These have multiple phases and can be complicated, so significant funding is required. “Several treatments that will give some improvement for patients are not going through clinical trials. The main barrier is financial.”
What is your message for the SCI community?
Despite the difficulties and complexity surrounding the science, important progress is being made and potential treatments are being invented. Generating greater political influence will be important for getting treatments to clinical trials and overcoming financial hurdles.
What is next for you?
I’m currently an emeritus professor at Cambridge, and I’m planning to work until I’m 75 as a volunteer researcher in Cambridge, and I also have positions at the Prague Institute of Experimental Medicine and at Imperial College.
Spinal Research joined up with the International Online Spinal Cord Injury Research Seminar team (I-OSCIRS) to deliver a number of online seminars throughout September.
These seminars were attended by leading scientific experts and clinicians in the field of spinal cord injury research. The series also provided a platform for scientists, and the next generation of research graduates to discuss discoveries and latest treatments under development.
Making research accessible
In order to bring the research closer to supporters, the opening and closing sessions were tailored to a non-scientific audience. To launch the month, Professor Karim Fouad provided a fascinating guide to the biology of a spinal cord injury, alongside an overview of some of the major research breakthroughs from recent years.
The closing session by Dr James Guest (right) provided insight into the science currently being trialled with human participants, alongside innovations for the future. This was followed by an interactive panel session with questions taken from participants across the world.
Trialling life-changing research
Tara was a rider with many years experience, but was unfortunately bucked from her horse in 2014, leaving her paralysed from the upper chest down.
Today Tara is taking part in a Spinal Research funded clinical trial to test a groundbreaking treatment to restore function.
Conducted in the UK, this trial consists of 120 spinal stimulation sessions combined with physical rehabilitation. An electrical field is delivered to the spinal cord through electrodes on the skin. As a tetraplegic, Tara will receive stimulation in the cervical (neck), thoracic and lumbar levels of the spinal cord depending on which muscle groups are being targeted at the time.
Similar studies have already shown subjects regain varying degrees of function, even many years after their injury. These include the ability to move legs and in some cases stand unaided, improvements in hand and arm function and even changes in bowel, bladder and sexual function.
Help Fund Life-Changing Research
Our work is only possible through the generosity of our supporters. There are many promising scientific developments but in order to get them out of the laboratory and into clinical trials for patients and ultimately meaningful treatments, we need funding. When you buy one of our new gift or Christmas cards you are providing hope to thousands of people living in the UK with paralysis. Each card details how this gift can support our work and can be personalised.
Inspired by Frida
In Mexico 1925, artist Frida Kahlo suffered a near fatal accident, which resulted in a spinal cord injury when the tram she was travelling on collided with a streetcar. Despite living with chronic pain for the rest of her life, Frida became one of the most famous artists of the 21st century. Her work candidly depicts her experiences living with paralysis. To coincide with her birthday in July, we ran a special art competition with the winner’s work featuring on our first ever set of gift cards below. We were overwhelmed by the quality of the responses, but whittled it down to three international artists.
With Christmas rapidly approaching, we are also issuing our latest collection of festive cards.
Send seasons greetings to friends and family far and wide, and you will help support our work. Order before December to ensure you receive your cards in time for Christmas.
To order a gift or christmas card, visit: www.charitycardshop.com/spinal-research or call 020 7653 8939.
10 years ago a cycling accident left Paul Fairhurst paralysed in a roadside gutter in Singapore. As the 29th of June marked the ten year anniversary of his accident, Paul wanted to do something special with family and friends:
“I wanted to commemorate that day because it changed my life, and the life of my family, forever. I also wanted to celebrate the role of those close to me who have played such a crucial part in helping my family through it all.”
Paul walked 10 km from West Bexington to Golden Cap in just one day, where he was cheered on by his wife Ali, his son Max, his daughter Amy, his parents and a group of friends who have supported Paul and his family across the last 10 years.
While aiming to raise £10,000, Paul ultimately raised over £15,000 for three disability charities that mean a great deal to him, including Spinal Research. We were the first charity Paul supported post injury, inspired by our efforts to deliver life-changing treatments to beat paralysis.
Thank you to Paul and all his supporters on behalf of Spinal Research.
annabel’s Charity of Choice
PA firm annabel has chosen Spinal Research as their charity of the year, and are running in the London Half Marathon this October. We caught up with Annabel Bunch, Sophie Phillips and Avril Robertson to talk training and why they have chosen to support us.
Could you tell us a little about annabel?
Established in 2013 by co-founders Annabel Bunch and Annabel Jefferson, annabel offers bespoke PA and administrative services to private individuals and small businesses.
Why is Spinal Research your charity of the year?
Every year we support a different charity which is nominated by either an annabel consultant or client. Spinal Research was put forward by one of our consultants whose husband has a spinal injury. We provide a donation but also like to provide hands-on support, as well as raising funds through running events and other family-orientated activities.
What is the hardest aspect of training for the half marathon?
Time planning! However, training is going better for some of us than others – unfortunately there’s no training plan that includes a good glass of rosé!
What advice would you give to someone training for a half-marathon
Don’t run in the last week, invest in a good pair of shoes and stay hydrated!
If you would like to support the team, you can do so here: justgiving.com/team/annabellondon
Good luck from all the team at Spinal Research!
Meet the Team
Shauna Creamer: Community Fundraising Manager
Why is fundraising so important to a charity like Spinal Research?
Over the last 18 months, with cancelled events and Community fundraising coming to a complete stop, we lost over 50% of our income. That’s why the support of our community means more now than ever. Without your support we wouldn’t exist to fund life-changing research.
What are you looking forward to in the role
Getting to know the Spinal Research community and finally attending events to meet them in person.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I do a lot of walking with my cocker spaniel Evie, because she puts up with all my zoom calls without too much grumbling.
Where were the first places you travelled to after lockdown?
Visiting friends and family has been top priority post-lockdown. Also a few weddings, meeting new additions to their families is taking up a lot of time.
Do you have a message for our supporters and how they can reach you?
The Community and Events team are so excited that challenge events have started again. It’s been a tough year and people fundraising for us through reuniting with family or taking on a new challenge is just amazing!
So if you’re thinking of getting active or hosting an event in aid of Spinal Research, please get in touch - we’d love to help and inspire others by sharing your stories. Contact email@example.com.