Jacqueline C. Bresnahan, Ph.D.
Jacqueline C. Bresnahan, Ph.D., has been named chair of the Reeve Foundation Science Advisory Council. She is a senior research scientist who works alongside her husband, Michael Beattie, Ph.D., at the Brain and Spinal Injury Center (BASIC) at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Bresnahan, who has served on the SAC since the early 1990s, takes over for Moses V. Chao, Ph.D., Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology and Neuroscience at New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Chao will remain on the SAC.
Jumping off the cliff
Drs. Bresnahan and Beattie came to the Bay Area two years ago after many years with senior academic appointments and laboratory management responsibilities at Ohio State University. "We got more and more advanced in administration – there was just more and more to do, much of it outside the lab," says Bresnahan. "So we heard about his new opportunity and just made the decision to move west." The transition, she says, has been exciting and exhilarating, "a bit like jumping off a cliff while trying to figure out where to land, but it's been intellectually stimulating at UCSF, beyond our expectations."
The USCF neuroscience labs are directly adjacent to San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), one of the leading trauma centers in the U.S. Says Bresnahan, "We saw this as an opportunity to use our background in the basic sciences to work alongside clinicians in state-ofthe- art critical care for brain and spinal cord injury. For scientists, this is an ideal situation; it's the place to be in order to more quickly translate our research in the truest sense, that is, to help patients."
Creating new tools
Drs. Bresnahan and Beattie are well known in the SCI research world, at least by their last name initials. The BBB score, named for Bresnahan, Beattie and Ohio State physical therapist Michele Basso, is widely used to measure functional change in the hind limbs of animals after experimental treatments. Bresnahan and Beattie continue their work in outcome assessment, including development of new tools to assess forelimb recovery.
The Beattie/Bresnahan laboratory does basic and translational research aimed at enhancing recovery after spinal cord injury. One goal is to continue to develop preclinical models for studying treatment strategies, including transplantation of stem and progenitor cells.
Bresnahan and Beattie also focus on efforts to reduce the expansion of injury in the hours and days after trauma occurs. After the initial injury, a cascade of biochemical processes follows, including inflammation and oxidative stress. These processes continue to kill cells but they can be stopped, thus sparing vulnerable nerve tissue, and preserving function.
"Sparing is critical," says Bresnahan. "Even saving a small amount of nervous tissue can mean the difference between having hand function or not for a person with a cervical injury."
Only one drug has been approved for acute SCI, a steroid whose effect is modest; the search, meantime, continues for better acute treatments (For more on an upcoming Phase I acute trial for riluzole, supported by the Reeve Foundation, click here).
A look back into the future
The Bresnahan and Beattie lab is working with the SFGH trauma team to test the effectiveness of hypertonic saline in acute spinal cord injury. If it works in animals, based in large part on assessment tools developed in their lab, the treatment could move quickly into the clinic. Bresnahan got the urge early on to pursue a career in science. She admits to being a "lab rat" who loves doing experiments and working with animals. Neither she nor her husband trained specifically to work in CNS trauma. Bresnahan began in psychology (memory and learning, how the brain produces behavior). She met Beattie in grad school as they narrowed in on physiological psychology and later, brain anatomy and motor function.
In the mid-1970s, Ohio State got a grant to study spinal cord; Bresnahan and Beattie were drawn to the challenge. "At the time I thought the spinal cord would be easier than the brain – the input and output systems are right there." That hasn't really been the case. Moreover, the SCI field was not well funded, or indeed, well regarded. "At that time nobody had any hope to be able to do anything for SCI," says Bresnahan. "The view of regeneration research was that there was not likely to be any progress in our lifetime." Why go on into a field dominated by such pessimism? Beattie had a cousin with a spinal cord injury, which he says motivated him. For Bresnahan, motivation came early on from people she met who were living with spinal cord injuries. "You see the consequences of something that occurs in just a moment; these injuries have such a profound effect on peoples' lives. Spinal cord injury is an extremely difficult problem, but we are trying the best we can to move things forward."
The business of helping the Foundation direct its scientific investments is something Bresnahan is only too happy to do.
"I think of it as my civic duty. It is an honor to serve as chair."