The Reeve Foundation's International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury was created in 1995 to speed progress toward repair and functional recovery in acute and chronic spinal cord injury. At that time, the idea was quite unprecedented in modern biomedical research: a group of top labs, working together to maximize efficiency and optimize transparency as competitive urges are toned down. Consortium projects are coordinated between the six labs in the U.S. and Europe. The sharing of knowledge, personnel and tools builds an infrastructure of trust and collegiality.
One lesser known outcome of the Consortium that has made a major impact on the field is the Associates' program. Each lab is directed by a PI – a principal investigator. Each PI picks a graduate or postdoctoral student (called Associates) to oversee the day-to-day collaborative work within the Consortium. The Consortium meets twice a year; before the PIs and advisors arrive, the Associates come together on their own for a day to discuss their projects and any issues that benefit by the brainstorming of young minds.
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Over the years, dozens of Consortium Associates have rotated through the program and most have stayed in the SCI field. Many former Associates have lined up major funding to create labs of their own. By recent count, 25 former Associates have set up their own labs; another handful continues to work in prominent SCI labs.
Susan Howley, Executive VP, Research, has overseen the Consortium since its formation. The fruits of collaboration, she notes, have accumulated over time. The labs learned to share and unify their approach to research problems. The Associates aspect, which was the idea of Swiss scientist Martin Schwab, has been more under the radar:
"Dr. Schwab insisted from the outset that Associates were the key to running the everyday business of the Consortium. He thought the program would create cohesion and also be a good way to nurture new talent in the field.
"Indeed, the Associates program has been an unequivocal though unheralded success. Measured by the number of former Reeve-funded post-docs who have gone on to form their own labs, the program has energized spinal cord injury research and magnified many times the research progress of the individual Consortium labs. There are more well-funded, top-grade scientists working on the problem of spinal cord repair and regeneration than ever, thanks in large part to this program.
"What's interesting," notes Howley, "is that in the early days of the Consortium, each lab had but one Associate. Today, all labs have two or three; the Pfaff lab at the Salk has four! Clearly this aspect of the research network has been a resounding success."
The first Associates' class included several young scientists who are now leaders in the field. Aileen Anderson, who was a post-doc in the Carl Cotman lab, now directs a lab at the University of California Irvine (UCI) and is seeing her work with stem cells move into a Phase I clinical trial. She is also Scientific Director of the Foundation's Animal Core Laboratory at UCI. Giles Plant, the Associate from the Mary Bunge lab at the Miami Project, was recently recruited back to the U.S. from Australia to direct the brand-new Stanford Partnership for Spinal Cord Injury and Repair in Palo Alto, CA.
Phil Horner, Ph.D., is a scientist at the University of Washington whose lab, by his reckoning, is the only one in the state doing spinal cord research. When Horner came out of grad school and was looking for a post-doc position, he heard a lecture by Rusty Gage, a prominent investigator at the Salk Institute and then chair of the Reeve Science Advisory Council. Although he was trained at Ohio State in Brad Stokes's SCI-based lab, Horner was thinking about a career studying Alzheimer's Disease. Gage's approach caught his attention. Horner approached Gage, who signed the post-doc to the first Associate class; they worked together for more than four years.
"The thing we were doing at the Consortium, which was unusual then in scientific research, was learning how to work together. Can multiple labs do projects together? We put our best ideas together. The goal wasn't that we cure spinal cord injury. The goal at that time was: Can you take a developmental biology lab, a physiology lab, a molecular lab, can you get them to work together on one project and functionally integrate? The answer was yes. And we became friends and to this day connect and communicate about the issues of spinal cord injury."
John W. McDonald, M.D., Ph.D. is a researcher in the spinal cord injury field and directs the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute. He was also in the inaugural Associates' class as a post-doc in the Dennis Choi lab at Washington University in St. Louis. McDonald, who was headed for a career as a stroke neurologist, was asked by Choi to attend the organizing meeting of the Consortium, in spite of its focus on the damaged spinal cord.
"We met for three days, sitting among some of the acknowledged leaders in the neurosciences -- Rusty Gage, Ira Black, Martin Schwab, Luis Parada, Carl Cotman, Richard and Mary Bunge, Albert Aguayo, Eric Shooter. I was blown away. I walked out of the meeting thinking regeneration was possible.
"Some of the Associates had SCI background -- Lisa Schnell (from the Schwab lab), Phil Horner and Giles Plant. I really learned a lot from them. The Associates from all eight labs spent days and nights combining interventions in one experimental project -- the earliest attempts at a combinatorial approach to spinal cord repair. We learned to trust each other, to share methods and tools and in a sense, to think and problem-solve collaboratively. In some ways this is the single most important investment made by the Reeve Foundation. The Associates' program puts a growing number of shoulders to the wheel. Every one of us went on to get funding and become leaders. I wouldn't be in the SCI field today if not for the Consortium."
Keith Tansey, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Spinal Cord Injury Research at the Shepherd Center, was the first Consortium Associate in the Edgerton lab at UCLA. Tansey's experience as an Associate firmly tipped his career toward the SCI field, both in research and clinical practice, having also become board certified in SCI medicine. Tansey's lab looks for ways to improve neural plasticity and repair that lead to functional recovery after SCI.
Says Tansey: "I was asked to join the Consortium as Reggie Edgerton's first Associate when I was a fellow at UCLA. The model was to work on a ‘common experiment.' By the time I left for my first faculty position, Associates worked on multiple collaborations between Consortium labs. The best part was the exposure we got to leaders in the field and to the scientific strengths they brought to the table."
Karim Fouad, Ph.D., is professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He came to Canada in 2001 having completed a stint as Martin Schwab's Associate in Zurich. His research aims to promote functional recovery following spinal cord injury by understanding injury induced plasticity and attempting to enhance this naturally occurring repair mechanism.
"I figured Martin Schwab was too big a star to be interested in me. But I made a presentation in Germany. Dr. Schwab was there. He said, 'We could use you.' I was there with him for 4 ½ years, the last two as an Associate. The Consortium meetings were great for science, and for getting to know each other. The old guys, the PIs, would chat and discuss projects and send us post-docs off to do experiments together. There is no doubt, the Consortium has produced many talented people. It inspired me, it helped me get started. Truly, without having been an Associate I would not be where I am now."
Gregoire Courtine, Ph.D., a former Consortium Associate for the Edgerton lab at UCLA, has his own lab, the Experimental Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute and Technology Center, Zurich. His work looks at neurorehabilitation interventions, including implantable electrode arrays and pharmacological aids to improve the recovery of function from training and activity.
"I saw Reggie Edgerton at a conference. I loved what he was doing. I approached him. I told him I wanted to come work at his lab. He said, ‘Why not.' I was with the Edgerton lab five years, two as a Consortium Associate; that experience has been the key to my career. Having access to top people, doing the kinds collaborations we did. It was an unbelievable opportunity, being able to break bread with the top minds in the field."
Vanessa Boyce, Ph.D., is a Research Assistant Professor in Lorne Mendell's laboratory at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a current Consortium Associate. Her work involves growth factors BDNF and NT-3, which appear to modify the function of neural pathways that survive after spinal cord injury, and which appear to promote recovery.
"Being an Associate has been extremely beneficial. If I have a problem -- some immunostaining isn't working, for example -- I call one of my Associate colleagues. I always get good advice. Before the PIs get together at Consortium meetings, we Associates gather for a day of brainstorming to share progress and troubleshoot our projects. When I first came to a meeting I was wide-eyed at all the prominent scientists in the room; now I am comfortable as part of something very significant, something with such potential to help people."
– Sam Maddox