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Laboratory meets real life

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Winter/Spring


A broken spinal cord cannot be healed. Case closed. That was the message James Peters received from physicians when his spinal cord was injured during an explosion at an army base in 1967. Until recently, he and other paralyzed veterans had no reason to believe they would ever walk again.

"Now, there is a renewed sense of hope," said Mr. Peters, executive director of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, who recently visited the laboratories at the PVA / EPVA Center for Neuroscience and Regeneration Research at Yale. "The tunnel now has a light."

Located on the West Haven campus of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, the PVA/EPVA Center was founded as a collaborative effort among the University, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, and the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1987. It opened the following year.

During two days of lectures, tours and gatherings at Yale and the VA campus in late September, the founding partners celebrated a decade of advances in neuroscience research. As part of the celebration, Stephen G. Waxman, M.D., Ph.D., gave the first annual Helen Wilshire Walsh lecture, From Molecules to Man: Approaching a New Neurology of the Spinal Cord, summarizing the discoveries at the PVA/EPVA Center that are bringing a cure for spinal cord injuries closer.

Hearing Dr. Waxman explain how lengthy and complicated the process of discovery can be actually was encouraging to Chris A. Timpanelli, an attorney in Stratford, Conn., who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. "Some people would be disheartened by this," he says, "but I look at it another way. We are lucky to have people this dedicated. Knowing this has been more therapeutic than any drug."

Currently, about 30 scientists work at the PVA/EPVA Center. More than 50 scientists have trained there, many continuing their own spinal cord research in laboratories around the world. "The work of this lab is very relevant to the clinic and the concerns of patients. That's what attracted me as a student," Mark Baccei, who was explaining his studies on calcium channels, told the visitors. He is a third-year graduate student in the interdisciplinary neuroscience program at Yale. Martin Young, treasurer of the EPVA, was one of those listening. "I know of no place in the world," he said, "where they are doing this as intensively as at Yale."

The partnership between scientists and non-scientists has been beneficial to both groups. "When we're working at the bench, designing an experiment or building a model, we are thinking in very abstract ways. But when we are interacting with people, it gives us a better perspective," said associate research scientist Sulayman Dib-Hajj, Ph.D. "It's not just science for the sake of science, but science that may eventually lead to improvements in the lives of people with these injuries. This is a very powerful motivation."