David Zurfluh can walk using leg braces and a cane, and that is a major step forward from where he once found himself. While a member of the U.S. Air Force in 1995, Zurfluh fractured his neck in a motor vehicle accident in Hachinohe, Japan, and was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia. It took four years of therapy for him to be able to walk again.
Zurfluh is now the national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), a veterans’ service organization with a history that is intertwined with Yale’s. With the support of funding from PVA, in 1986 Stephen G. Waxman, MD, PhD, Bridget M. Flaherty Professor of Neurology and of Neuroscience, launched the Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research (CNRR) at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven.
The missions of the CNRR and PVA complement each other: PVA focuses on advocating for medical research on spinal cord injury, paralysis, and neuropathic pain, and the CNRR brings together world-class researchers and cutting-edge science to advance important research and inform therapies.
PVA leaders return to Yale every five years—most recently last October 25—for a dinner and a tour of research labs at the CNRR and School of Medicine. Waxman and CNNR Associate Director Jeffrey D. Kocsis, PhD, professor of neurology and of neuroscience, lead a diverse team of more than 30 scientists whose work collectively aims to improve the lives of such people as Zurfluh, who was given a steroid shot as part of his initial treatment at an International Red Cross facility in Hachinohe before going to the VA in Seattle for a long course of rehabilitation. The injection was instrumental in helping him regain his ability to walk. “Had it not been for scientists and researchers at that time, I may not have had that opportunity,” he says. “It’s very personal to me what you do here at Yale.”
Beyond spinal cord injury, CNRR scientists study a variety of conditions and their underlying mechanisms, including multiple sclerosis and neuropathic pain. Waxman’s research has focused on understanding the molecular basis for functional recovery after central nervous system injury, and has examined the activity of sodium channels in neurologic disease.
Recent work has led to the identification of a particular sodium channel, encoded by the gene SCN9A, as a major contributor to pain after injury to the nervous system. That discovery suggests new possibilities for treating pain.
Kocsis’s team is interested in therapies for spinal cord repair that involve the restoration of myelin, the insulating sheath that coats nerve-cell axons and is vital for the conduction of nerve signals in the brain and spinal cord.
Over the past 30 years, PVA has gifted $15 million to the School of Medicine for research surrounding pain that follows spinal cord injury—including phantom pain—and nerve tissue regeneration. Said Yale President Peter Salovey, PhD ’86, “Your service to our country and your dedication to improving the quality of life for all people living with spinal cord injury and disease are examples of what we hope to achieve through that wonderful interface where research, education, and clinical service come together.”