Keanu Reeves supports 'revolution' in paralysis treatment
by John Morgan
As Neo in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves realizes he is 'the one.' In real life Reeves hopes to start a revolution in the treatment and care of people suffering from spinal cord injuries.
Reeves joined fellow celebrities and NHL stars last Sunday for a celebrity hockey game to benefit the Spinal Cord Opportunities for Rehabilitation Endowment foundation.
"SCORE provides support for people who have experienced spinal cord injuries," says Reeves who tended goal during the game. "It helps them with what can be extremely expensive medicals costs. So we're hoping to raise money for a great cause. And we get to get out on the ice with the NHL guys."
"And hopefully I'll be able to stop a few pucks," Reeves adds joking.
Firing away at The Matrix: Reloaded star were such Hollywood hockey fans as Cuba Gooding Jr., Brendan Fehr from Roswell, Jay Harrington of Couples, D.B. Sweeney, Alan Thicke, and Rachel Blanchard of Clueless. Some of the NHL's top stars filled out the team rosters, among them were Luc Robitaille, Glenn Murray, Marty McSorely, and Rob Blake.
"A lot of the people that SCORE helps are all athletes - people who were injured while playing their sport," says Paulie Kosta, who plays with Reeves in a new band called becky. "So I think that makes this game more important, especially because of what happened to Sean [Gjos]."
SCORE was founded in 1999 after UCLA graduate student Sean Gjos suffered a paralyzing hockey accident.
"I was chasing a puck into the corner and the other team's player body checked me - it was a clean body check - and I went into the boards in an awkward back-first manner," Gjos recalls. "I dislocated one vertebra and fractured another. The net result was I squeezed my spinal canal to 10% of normal size."
The tragedy of Gjos' injury was apparent to him immediately.
"I was conscious throughout the entire accident so I felt the numbness sweeping up - I knew immediately something was very wrong," states Gjos, who is SCORE's honorary chairman. "When they straightened out my legs I still felt like they were bent and that's when I really knew how serious it was."
Now paraplegic, Gjos' accident illustrates the frailty of human health. His story was not far from the minds of the stars and pro players participating in the charity event.
"It's very scary that you could be doing a sport you love and one quick accident could change your life," says Blanchard, who was the lone female on the ice. "And it can happen to anybody at any time."
SCI score sheet
According to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, approximately 250,000 Americans are now living with spinal cord injuries. Of these, 52% are paraplegic like Gjos and 47% are quadriplegic like the famous actor. Additionally, about 11,000 people suffer SCIs every year. Fifty-six percent of these are between the ages of 16 and 30 and 82% of all cases are male.
Only about 7% of spinal cord injuries occur from sports related activities, like the ones suffered by Gjos and Reeve. According to University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC), other causes include:
Vehicular accident - 38%
Violence - 24%
Falls - 22%
Other - 8%
"You could be playing any sport, not just hockey, and a freak accident happens and we want to make sure that they are not forgotten," urges Luc Robitaille. "They need help and financial support because their care is very expensive."
In fact, the medical costs are daunting.
Only about 52% of SCI victims are covered by insurance. And the NSCISC reports that first year medical costs for a paraplegic SCI can run as much as $209,000 or more. Lifetime costs for a 25 year-old paraplegic like Gjos can exceed $730,000.
"One of the things that is great is not only does SCORE provide research funding but it also provides funds to transform a house - by providing wheel chair access -- so they can move around in their own home," notes Reeves, who will again play Neo in The Matrix: Revolutions due out this November. "They also do mentoring and help people finish their education."
"SCORE gives financial grants because the costs are substantial to retrofit homes, cars, and get adequate rehabilitation and we'd rather people focus on rehab issues not financial ones," Gjos says.
Cuba Gooding Jr. stressed that research funding is equally critical right now.
"Christopher Reeve has regained some abilities that weren't there so that obviously tells us we don't know enough yet, and we need to get more funds for research because the cure is out there," Gooding Jr. says. "Stem cell research and other new innovative ways may be what help heal people who are paralyzed. But we have to get more money."
Research scientist and doctors have been struggling with how to regenerate nerves for many decades. But now there is budding hope that breakthroughs will be within future reach.
"Spinal cord injury is a process that primarily destroys connections between the brain and the spinal cord," says Mark H. Tuszynski, professor of neurosciences at UCSD and director of Center of Neural Repair. "The problem isn't so much that cells die but that these wires that connect the two are disconnected. The real challenge of regeneration research is to reconnect the wires."
Tuszynski says that a "great deal of progress" has been made in the last 15 years in understanding why these 'wires' don't reconnect themselves and how doctors can augment that recovery. For people who have an established injury, research is directed at nerve regeneration.
While peripheral nerves do regenerate, the spinal cord does not. Scientists now know a lot more about these previously mysterious mechanisms.
"A peripheral nerve regenerates for three reasons," Tuszynski explains. "First, the structure of the tube surrounding the nerve remains pretty intact, which helps align nerves into the correct orientation for regeneration. Second the injury site fills in with cells that help with the attachment of the injured nerves so they can move along - almost like a bridge that supports axon growth. And third, cells along the injured nerve secrete growth factors at the injury site to stimulate growth of new connections."
But in the spinal cord these things don't happen.
Tuszynski says that following a SCI there is no matrix of cells or proteins that the nerves can attach to as they grow along. Additionally, the spinal cord not only doesn't make growth factors, but it and the brain actually produce inhibitors that actively block the new growth of nerves throughout life. Another final obstacle to regeneration is no guidance mechanism exists to get the nerves growing to the right location.
"So research for regeneration centers on providing growth factors, providing a matrix to the injury site and neutralizing the inhibitors," the expert says. "In my opinion a multi-faceted approach, rather than one single approach, is most likely going to be an effective therapy for the complicated problem of spinal cord injury."
The good news for the injury community is there have been definitive successes in coaxing injured nerves to grow again and to grow into a site of spinal cord injury.
"The challenge remains to convincingly show that those growing nerves hook up to the right targets in order to allow functional recovery," Tuszynski states. "We have come a long way and we still have a long way to go but there is more hope than ever."
"I'm playing because the money and awareness raised can make a real difference in people's lives right now," says Reeves. "This is a great cause and it deserves attention."