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Once Superman, Christopher Reeve Now Focuses on Spinal Cord Research

December 22, 2003
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Penetrating and intense, Christopher Reeve’s eyes dominate the large, iconic painting in the foyer of his country house in Bedford, N.Y.

They are a mesmerizing reminder of his moment as Superman.

At the back of the house, in a window-filled sunroom, Reeve sits in his motorized wheelchair, his gaze gentler but his focus no less intense.

His bookshelves are heavy with the weight of texts on spinal-cord injuries — a sign of the paralyzing reality the actor has lived with since the spring of 1995, when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition.

The fall fractured vertebrae in Reeve’s neck and crushed his spinal cord. Now Reeve, 51, focuses his energies on finding and supporting scientific research into effective treatments and a cure for the paralysis caused by spinal- cord injuries.

Last July, those interests brought Reeve to Israel, home to cutting-edge research into spinal-cord injuries.

“It was one of the most rewarding trips of my life,” said Reeve, who grew up in Princeton, N.J. “It was really a privilege to have been there, not just because they treated me so well — that was great — but because of the people we met.”

So far, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in Springfield, N.J., has made $45 million in research grants to neuroscientists working on spinal-cord injuries.

Reeve has become increasingly visible as an activist pushing to keep the research moving toward its goal.

Reeve has testified before the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures to speak out in support of federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research — research that is opposed by the Bush administration and America’s religious right wing.

Reeve brought his spirit of activism to the five-day fact-finding trip to Israel this summer.

His mission was to visit Israeli research institutions and rehabilitation centers. He was particularly interested in the work of neurobiologist Dr. Michal Schwartz, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and scientists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The trip was organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and sponsored, in part, by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

At January’s Annual Leadership Educational Forum sponsored by American Friends of the Hebrew University in Palm Beach, Fla., Reeve will address the Jewish community on the issue for the first time, focusing in particular on his personal reactions to the pioneering work he witnessed in Israel.

“I went home actually glad that we live in a global village today, because what we don’t accomplish in one country will be done in another country, and no one can stop the free exchange of ideas and technology around the world,” Reeve said.

As he spoke, the flow of Reeve’s words was punctuated by pauses for breath, electrically prompted by the diaphragm-pacing device that was implanted in his chest through laparoscopic surgery in March. The device allows him to breathe without a ventilator.

Reeve’s brother Kevin lived and worked in Jerusalem for almost a year in 2000.

“He wrote such interesting letters about Israel and about the Israeli people, the beauty of the country and the life there. So it was something I had been meaning to do for a long time,” Reeve said of his own visit to the Jewish state.

The trip also was prompted by a personal invitation from the Weizmann Institute’s Schwartz, who visited Reeve at home several years ago and described a radical new idea she had for treatment.

Schwartz’s idea involves using the body’s own cells — macrophages — to help the body heal from spinal-cord injury, Reeve said.

“She began by asking the question: Why doesn’t the spinal cord regenerate? And her theory was that no one had come up with a way to contain the damage at the time of injury,” he said. “And so she decided to use macrophages, scavenger cells that eat debris in the body.”

In Schwartz’s study, macrophages are removed from the injured person’s body and then reintroduced into the spinal cord to create a clean environment for healing.

“In her Phase I study, out of 14 patients operated on within the first two weeks of injury, all of them showed improvement, including one individual I met in Israel who two years ago suffered a complete transection of the spinal cord,” Reeve said.

That patient had macrophage implantation, spent two years in aggressive rehabilitation, and today is able to walk with the support of parallel bars, Reeve said.

“That’s the most impressive example of recovery from spinal-cord injury I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “It was very satisfying, very rewarding for me to see how much progress” Schwartz is making.

Reeve also visited Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Beit Halochem Rehabilitation Center, and the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.

He also met with scientists from Hebrew University, where researchers are working on creating purified lines of human embryonic stem cells.

Hebrew University scientists already have demonstrated the ability of stem cells to become new heart tissue, he said, and are doing cutting-edge work in computational neuroscience, the study of how the brain and nervous system work.

“That technology is moving along very rapidly in Israel,” Reeve said. “The United States is giving away its pre- eminence in biomedical research because of pressure from social and religious conservatives, and it’s particularly disturbing because polls show that 70 percent of the American public is in favor of all forms of stem-cell research.”

Reeve said he came away from his meetings in Israel with a strong sense of the courage of Israeli scientists and the importance of science to the Jewish state.

His trip also left him with a sense of admiration for the average Israeli.

“I sensed the precariousness, the fragility of everyday life,” he said. “I got a real sense of people working together, of a great deal of mutual respect — that the Israeli people are very full of life, full of energy, and they seem to make the most out of every moment.”

Just prior to his trip, Reeve said, he had been focusing his energies on supporting state legislative initiatives that would allow scientists to conduct research on stem cells from any source.

California passed such legislation in September 2002.

“We’re getting very close in a number of key states, like New Jersey and New York,” he said.

“What I’m fighting for is the freedom of scientific inquiry,” he said. “Stem cells will probably benefit millions of people suffering from a wide variety of diseases.”

But Reeve acknowledges that many difficulties must be overcome before a safe and effective treatment can be devised to help people like himself, a quadriplegic with a chronic spinal-cord injury.

“In terms of acute injuries, there are now therapies ready for humans today,” he said. “Treatment for people with chronic injuries — that’s a little further off.”

But, he continued, “I’m glad that trials to help people in the acute phase are under way,” Reeve said. “I think clinical trials for chronic injury won’t be that far behind. But I know it’s going to take time. I’m going to have to be very patient.”

Marilyn Silverstein is a staff writer for the New Jersey Jewish News.

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