Working 2 Walk 2017 | Kate Willette

Posted by Reeve Staff in Research News on October 25, 2017 # Research

This post was hard to write.

The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t anything to say, but just the opposite: this is a moment in SCI world where there’s plenty to say. Last week I ended by describing what I hope to do with this blog: Have some fun, make some friends, learn some things …

In between seeing those words published and this moment, Bruce and I (and about 175 others) went to Miami for the 2017 Working 2 Walk (W2W) conference, which ran for less than two days, from registration on the evening of Thursday, October 12th through the final workshops late Saturday afternoon of the 14th. W2W is basically a super-compressed collection of chances to have fun, make friends, and learn some of the things that will make us all stronger advocates.

It’s hectic. Challenging. Exhausting. If you’re interested in a series of quick summaries of exactly what was said there, have a look at the Live Blog I wrote and posted right from my table at the back of the conference room. (Hint: Start at the bottom of the list and read your way up, or just pick the titles and people you find interesting and click on those.)

One of my own favorite presentations was that of Dr. Chet Moritz, who happens to run an SCI research lab right here in Seattle. Let me paint a picture for you. Chet’s a calm, kind 40-something guy with a ponytail who looks like he might be a distance runner. He’s casual, warm, and in my experience always ready to talk, which is surprising if you know, as I do, how very large is the workload he carries.

For example, in his lab at the University of Washington Chet is currently supervising fifteen people, including undergrads and grad students, international scholars and research scientists, post-docs and at least one MD. Chet is also Co-director at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, a research center in partnership with MIT and San Diego State University that’s been funded since 2011 by the National Science Foundation. Their tagline reads: “Helping the body heal, feel, and move again.”

Exactly.

What are all those people doing? Broadly, they’re working on restoring function after spinal cord injury. At W2W, Chet shared a video that captures his team’s early success in one of the areas they’re exploring: the use of a device called a transcutaneous stimulator (borrowed from Dr. Reggie Edgerton’s lab at UCLA) to restore movement and sensation. Chet described the subject in his video as a 62-yr-old man with an incomplete cervical injury, two years post, who had a single, simple goal. He wanted to be able to feed himself.

I happened to be sitting next to a young quad friend while Chet’s video played. We watched together as the man on the screen – pre-stimulator -- struggled to pick up a wooden peg so he could place it in a hole on a pegboard. He couldn’t do it. The “after’ video showed him doing it fairly easily; he could also pour water into a glass and drink from it, put a key into a lock and put a coin into a slot. He could use a spoon to take a bite of blackberries from a bowl. At that point my quad friend leaned his upper body sideways to get my attention.

“Is this legit?” he whispered.

“Yes,” I said. “Just not done.”

The transcutaneous stimulator is a small set of electrodes that sits directly on the skin and delivers very fast, non-painful pulses to the cord. It’s not FES-bike-style electricity aimed at muscles – it’s electricity aimed at whatever intact circuitry exists in a damaged cord. What I meant when I said it wasn’t done is that we’re only in the beginning stages of answering all the questions about how to use it and what to expect from it.

If you’d like more information about how these stimulators work and what’s being done to move this research forward, see the section in Don’t Call It a Miracle called “Getting Lucky,” and keep an eye on the Reeve Foundation’s own Big Idea project.

The best news for us is that since 2015 Chet’s lab has also been part of the Reeve Foundation’s Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury – a group of six labs that represent a fair sampling of the different approaches that will someday combine to become meaningful therapies. The Foundation brought them together in an effort to make those combinations and therapies happen faster. Another time, I plan to talk about how that works exactly. How do these labs collaborate? What specifically does it mean to be part of this group? How does it change the way science is done?

Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Randi Blaisdel