Stages Of Spinal Cord Injury Research

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(THIS WAS AN INFORMATIVE SPEECH I DID FOR MY COM220 CLASS ON THE STAGES OF SPINAL CORD INJURY RESEARCH. IT ACTED AS AN INTRODUCTION TO MY PERSUASIVE SPEECH ON THE BENEFITS OF STEM CELL RESEARCH)

There are about a quarter of a million people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries. In addition, between 7,600 and 10,000 new injuries occur each year. Nearly half of these new injuries will occur in young people between the ages of 16 and 30. As a person in this category, I have become very interested in the research to find a cure for spinal cord injuries and hope to share some of the information I found with you today. In order for you to fully understand the details I will be sharing with you, I’d like to begin with a general overview of the spinal cord before moving on to the three stages of research I will cover: past research which has lead to present treatments, recent research, and the present and future research.

The spinal cord is basically a bundle of nerves which runs from the base of the brain to the middle of the waist. It is the core of the spinal column and carries nerve impulses to and from the brain to the rest of the body. When this soft, jelly-like cord is injured, severe effects are felt on the body. The spinal cord can be bruised, damaged, or severed, each resulting in different degrees of injury. In this illustration we see an example of a slipped disk. A slipped disk most often results in severe and sometimes disabling pain and can be treated by painkillers, bed rest, or surgery. While definitely not a minor ailment, the severity of a slipped disk is not very high since the spinal cord is left intact and therefor there is no nerve damage. However, more serious consequences occur when the spinal cord is damaged or severed. This can happen from traumas or diseases, and since we have a limited time, I will focus only on the traumatic causes. The largest contributor to traumatic spinal cord injuries is vehicular accidents, accounting for nearly 48%. Next is falls at almost 21%, followed by violence, sports, and other’. As you can see from this graph, 66% of sports injuries occur in the form of diving accidents, while I am part of the 3.8% of snow skiing accidents.

Now that I have shared a brief overview of the spinal cord and some statistics about spinal cord injuries, we will look at the past research that has led to the treatments most commonly used today. In 1990, a steroid called dexamethasone was discovered in human trials to preserve some motor and sensory function if administered at high doses within 8 hours of injury. Surgery used to remove fluid, tissue, or bone fragments, or to stabilize fractured vertebrae by fusing bones or inserting hardware has also proven to be one of the most thorough measures to prevent further harm. I received both of these treatments after my accident, and they are the same that have been used for the past decade. Until recently, doctors had no way of limiting such disabilities, aside from stabilizing the cord to prevent added destruction, treating infections, and prescribing rehabilitative therapy to maximize any remaining capabilities.

Within the past few years, however, scientists have made many new advancements. The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved 2 electronic systems that regulate muscles by sending electrical signals through implanted wires, called functional electrical stimulation (FES). Some proteins have been found to promote nerve growth and restore limb function and sensation when administered directly into injured areas of rats. Another experiment with paralyzed rats found that when immature spinal cells from adult rats were induced to grow, then implanted in the gaps of the animals’ spinal cords, limited movement was produced. One very important discovery that has been made is that of a so-called no-go’ gene which scientists say may block the regrowth of nerves.

The research going on now is very exciting and may provide hope for thousands of people. In fact, a study is going on at Phoenix’s own Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center that involves implanting a nerve stimulator in the spinal cord, allowing the damaged cord to receive signals from the brain. This study has already begun its human testing phase with three Valley residents, a very promising sign. Elsewhere in the country, doctors are performing operations known as tendon transfers’, where a paralyzed forearm muscle is disconnected from the bones of the hand and then connected to arm muscles regulated by parts of the spine above the injury.

Perhaps the most interesting and controversial new research study is that of fetal stem cells. Derived from 7-day-old human embryos, these stem cells can transform into just about any kind of tissue, as shown in this illustration. This mutative ability has the potential to cure diseases and conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and spinal cord injuries, and have already been used against certain types of cancer.

The controversy behind the stem cell research has been raging since the first experiments. The United States Congress banned federally supported human-embryo research in 1996, forcing scientists to solicit funding from private sponsors. Since stem cells are harvested from aborted fetuses, the ethical issues surrounding abortion act as a stigma in the public’s view. However, in September of last year, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission concluded that harvesting stem cells from discarded embryos is morally akin to removing organs from dead people for transplant. Stem cell research continues to be very controversial, yet prevalent in the scientific community.

Research in the field of spinal cord injuries has already come very far in only the past decade, and now seems to be on the fast track to finding a cure. Many of the facts and statistics I found while preparing this speech were entirely new to me, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to research a topic that is relevant to my life. I hope that I didn’t bore you too much and that you maybe even learned something new. Hopefully you have been able to absorb enough of the information I have given you today to better understand my persuasive speech in a couple of weeks when I will be asking you to support stem cell research.

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