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A Hero’s Hope: Nonanimal Research Is Best Way to Keep Reeve’s Dream Alive

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

In the movies, he was the Man of Steel. In real life, Christopher Reeve displayed nearly superhuman courage in the face of a tragic spinal cord injury. But determination doesn’t always carry the day. Reeve’s recent death means he will never fulfill his often-repeated vow to walk again.

This sad fact does not diminish the memory of this brave and honorable man. But Reeve’s passing should provoke reflection. What will it actually take to improve the lives and physical conditions of people suffering from spinal cord injuries?

That question is especially urgent in light of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, a $300 million piece of legislation now before Congress. This bill includes some useful provisions. Unfortunately, it also allocates significant new funding to one of the least promising lines of spinal cord injury research—experiments on animals.

Such experiments are often criticized for being inhumane. But using animals in the quest to find cures for human spinal cord injuries has another drawback: It has proven to be a colossal waste of time and money. Patient-focused research is far more likely to actually help injured people.

That’s one reason why much of the notable work being done in spinal cord injury research today does not involve animals. Important data are being obtained through tests on human neural cell lines in culture, impact studies using human cadavers, and clinical observations and trials.

In Arizona, researchers at the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center are helping partially paralyzed people walk by retraining the patient’s neuromuscular circuitry. This groundbreaking research combines weight-bearing therapy on a treadmill with electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. While still in its early stages, this combination of therapies looks very promising.

Meanwhile, experiments on animals consistently yield clinically irrelevant results. According to a review in the Journal of the American Paraplegia Society, at least 22 different agents have resulted in improvements in animals with injured spinal cords. But not one of these treatments has ever proven therapeutic in humans.

Even the much-heralded steroid methylprednisolone, which in injured animals protected neurons from inflammation-related damage, has been withdrawn as a recommended emergency-room treatment in Canada and much of the United States. Some evidence suggests that this drug may even be harmful to people with acute injuries.

The key problem? Animals like mice and rats are physiologically different from humans in many important ways. Treatments that work in rodents often don’t have the same effect on human patients.

To some extent, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act recognizes that cutting-edge research doesn’t require animals. The bill allocates resources to clinical studies and other promising lines of inquiry. For instance, one provision would establish a national network for clinical trials. That’s an excellent idea. The bill also includes money for public education about spinal cord injuries, which is badly needed.

Powered by such provisions—and by the national focus on Reeve's death—this legislation could be headed for passage. Legislators should certainly give the bill strong consideration. But they should also improve it by taking funding currently allocated to animal experiments and redirecting these resources to clinical studies.

Some supporters of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act have noted that even $300 million offers only a modest boost to research on this important health issue. Given the compelling need to help paralyzed people, why waste any of this money on dubious animal experiments?

Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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