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Health: He Never Gave Up

4 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

In public, Christopher Reeve usually played the stoic, silently enduring the indignities of paralysis. In private, he was more candid. He had vowed, shortly after the 1995 horseback-riding injury that left him a quadriplegic, that he would walk again by his 50th birthday. That milestone came–and went–in 2002. “I’m tired of being noble,” he confessed shortly afterward in a long conversation with TIME. “I try to go about this with as much dignity as I can, but not a day goes by when I don’t make some effort to get out of this situation.”

Dignity and effort are good words to describe how Reeve lived the final nine years of his life, which ended last week with his death from heart failure at age 52. While the actor most famous for playing Superman was never as close to walking again as he perhaps believed, he nonetheless spent his immobile years in constant motion, raising money for paralysis research, speaking out for stem-cell funding, offering hope to other paralysis sufferers, even using his body as a proving ground for new therapies. At least partly through his efforts, paralysis research accelerated in that time–small consolation to the family he leaves behind, but a real gift for researchers still laboring in the field.

Within months of Reeve’s injury, he became active in an advocacy group that eventually became the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which has so far raised $47 million for spinal-cord research. One of the first things Reeve came to appreciate was that healing a damaged cord is monstrously hard. Unlike nerves in, say, the skin, spinal nerves don’t regenerate. Even a small wound can cut off the signals that enable the body to move, feel and draw breath.

Scientists had been wrestling with that problem long before Reeve was hurt, but he helped drive their research. An area of study that his foundation funds involves so-called Schwann cells, which play a role in helping nonspinal nerves to regenerate. In animal studies, Schwann cells grafted to the damaged part of the spine encourage nerve cells to grow into the graft but not, so far, to connect downstream. “They fail to bridge the cord,” says Dalton Dietrich, scientific director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Scientists are trying to get around that by fortifying Schwann grafts with cells from the olfactory bulb, a bundle of nerve tissue in the nasal cavity. Olfactory cells regenerate well, and when they are combined with Schwann cells in animals, spinal tissue does a better job of reconnecting.

Another approach the Reeve Foundation has helped fund involves treating the spinal cord with a drug called rolipram, which stops injured tissue from breaking down. Paralyzed rats treated with Schwann cells and rolipram have shown a 70% improvement in mobility. Elsewhere, researchers are working on ways to neutralize growth inhibitors, proteins in the body that–for reasons known only to nature–block the healing of spinal tissue. By synthesizing other proteins that inhibit the inhibitors, spinal cells may be freed to grow.

For all the heat generated over stem cells, that science still requires a great deal of work. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards have both invoked Reeve’s advocacy of embryonic stem-cell funding in their campaign against the Bush Administration, which restricts research on religious grounds. But scientists must first coax stem cells to develop into nerve cells before they can begin to put them to work in the spine.

Perhaps most tantalizing, if only because it’s available now, is the power of exercise. In 2002, Reeve stunned the medical world with the news that he had regained some sensation over 70% of his body and could move most of his joints underwater. His doctors credited the turnaround to long hours of assisted exercise, particularly a regime of electrical stimulation that causes rhythmic contractions of muscles, allowing patients to ride a stationary bicycle and operate other equipment. Paralyzed animals show growth in spinal nerves after electrical exercise, and that may be what happened in Reeve’s body.

Reeve readily acknowledged that he was not a paralytic Everyman. With his high profile and ample funds, he had access to the best possible care. For that reason, he was often criticized for creating false hope. But a lack of any hope at all is something many paralyzed people already have in abundance. Reeve made it his mission to offer them something more. That and the foundation he created are a legacy that endures.

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