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Spinal-Cord Research: Nerve Builder

3 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Dr. Wise Young has never met the hundreds of thousands of people he has helped in the past 10 years, and most of them have never heard of Wise Young. If they did meet him, however, they’d want to shake his hand–and the remarkable thing about that would be the simple fact that so many of them could. All the people Young has helped were victims of spinal injuries, and they owe much of the mobility they have today to his landmark work.

Young, 51, head of the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., was born on New Year’s Day at the precise midpoint of the 20th century. Back then, the thinking about spinal-cord injury was straightforward: When a cord is damaged, it’s damaged. There’s nothing that can be done after an injury to restore the function that was so suddenly lost.

As a medical student at Stanford University and a neurosurgeon at New York University Medical Center, Young never had much reason to question that received wisdom, but in 1980 he began to have his doubts. Spinal cords, he knew, experience progressive damage after they’re injured, including swelling and inflammation, which may worsen the condition of the already damaged tissue. If that secondary insult could be relieved with drugs, might some function be preserved?

Young spent a decade looking into the question, and in 1990 he co-led a landmark study showing that when high doses of a steroid known as methylprednisolone are administered within eight hours of an injury, about 20% of function can be saved. Twenty percent is hardly everything, but it can often be the difference between breathing unassisted or relying on a respirator, walking or spending one’s life in a wheelchair. “This discovery led to a revolution in neuroprotective therapy,” Young says.

A global revolution, actually. More than 50,000 people around the world suffer spinal injuries each year, and these days, methylprednisolone is the standard treatment in the U.S. and many other countries. But Young is still not satisfied. The drug is an elixir for people who are newly injured, but the relief it offers is only partial, and many spinal-injury victims were hurt before it became available. Young’s dream is to help those people too–to restore function already lost–and to that end he is studying drugs and growth factors that could improve conduction in damaged nerves or even prod the development of new ones. To ensure that all the neural researchers around the world pull together, he has created the International Neurotrauma Society, founded the Journal of Neural Trauma and established a website carecure.rutgers.edu that receives thousands of hits each day.

“The cure for spinal injury is going to be a combination of therapies,” Young says. “It’s the most collaborative field I know.” Perhaps. But increasingly it seems that if the collaborators had a field general, his name would be Wise Young.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com