South Florida Hospital News
Sunday May 26, 2019
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December 2007 - Volume 4 - Issue 6

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Miami Project Works to Cure Paralysis and Help People with Spinal Cord Injuries

Until recently, a spinal cord injury meant life confined to a wheelchair. Marc Buoniconti, the son of Miami Dolphins player Nick Bouniconti, injured his spinal cord while playing college football. This traumatic situation gave rise to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

The Miami Project is based at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and since the 1980s has been working toward a cure for spinal cord injury. And recently the project has made some remarkable breakthroughs. Buffalo Bills player Kevin Everett was treated by doctors using the knowledge resulting from research at the Miami Project to provide him with experimental treatments initiated soon after his injury. He is now in rehabilitation in Texas.

Dr. Mary Bartlett-Bunge has used laboratory rats to perform research on spinal injuries. And the research has been promising. Currently doctors are hoping that the use of Schwann cells in combination with some drugs will allow patients to recover at least some use of their limbs following a spinal cord injury.

"Now we are working in a clinical trials initiative," Maria Amador, director of education for the Miami Project said. "Our research has shown that by using Schwann cells in combination with drugs there has been significant recovery in animals. We are now making application to the FDA so we can test these drugs in people. We are hoping to initiate transplantation on someone with a spinal cord injury in 2008."

Amador said the Project is still working to test the safety of Schwann cells in humans. So far, the tests have involved rats but those tests have shown that rats with spinal cord injuries have been able to recover some walking function. Scientists working with Schwann cells and drugs on rats have shown they can recover up to 70 percent coordination with hind limbs and forelimbs, according to Amador.

"The Miami Project has done the basic science and now we need to determine if the treatments can be useful to humans," Amador said. "A lot of people have volunteered their time to helping in this project."

But not everyone who suffers a spinal cord injury is confined to a wheelchair. Some people can recover substantial portion of their mobility through extensive physical and occupational therapy. Researchers at the Miami Project are studying ways in which therapy can help people with spinal cord injury improve their function and quality of life.

"We have a research program that evaluates Body Weight Support Gait Training," Amador said. "This is a research program we are working on to evaluate the therapy. An individual with paralysis is put into a harness that surrounds the torso. This helps support the body. Different training methods are used to help them take steps."

This newly developed therapy involves six to eight people who come in and spend four months working on relearning how to walk. Most have suffered traumatic accidents that caused spinal cord injuries.

"The research volunteers are not cured but they have improvements in their ability to walk," Amador said. "They might not get rid of their wheelchairs, but they often walk around their homes better."

Another research program involves using hand therapy combined with electrical stimulation so individuals might improve their grip. They are given different activities to practice. This practice is combined with electrical stimulation. This study is designed to help people recover and strengthen their grip in hand function. Researchers are determining if this electrical stimulation treatment makes effective changes in people’s brains, according to Amador.

Even though Marc Buoniconti is still in a wheelchair, he has been able to serve as president of the funding raising arm of the Miami Project. "About a third of our funds come through grants and contracts," Amador said. "We have received funding from competitive grants from the NIH and the State of Florida. The rest has come from fund raising and private donations."

And the efforts will continue until a cure has been found for spinal cord injury.

For more information about The Miami Project, contact Maria Amador at (305) 243-7108.
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