Senator pushes for spinal research funding

The bill asks that $4 million a year be given to a public research institute.

Marjorie Otto

Spinal cord injuries can be devastating, often leading to full or partial paralysis.

Some states publicly fund research for spinal cord injuries, and a bill recently introduced in the state Legislature would make Minnesota one of them.

This bill would ask for $4 million a year to go to a public research institution to study brain and spinal cord injuries, said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who proposed the bill.

That institution would most likely be the University of Minnesota, where Dr. Ann Parr, director of spinal neurosurgery at the University’s Stem Cell Institute, is researching spinal cord injuries.

Parr’s research is currently funded by a private donor, but she said the money may only last for another year or two.

Hayden’s bill would create grants that people researching spinal injuries could apply for. She said the money could come to the University because of the work she’s already doing.

“It’s almost guaranteed that we’re going [to get funding] because there are many good, excellent researchers at the University,” she said.

Hayden’s bill, which was introduced in late January and hasn’t been heard yet, would fund research toward treating or improving quality of life for those with paralysis.

At this point in her research, Parr said that they have made it far enough along to run tests on animals. Without more funding, she said she will have to cut paid workers.

“The less funding we have, the slower the research goes,” Parr said.

The inspiration

The idea for Hayden’s bill came from one of his constituents.

Matthew Rodreick, a south Minneapolis resident, has a son who became paralyzed after an accident four and a half years ago.

“I told Sen. Hayden a little bit about our story, the story of my son’s accident and some of the things we’ve been up to in the couple of years since his accident,” Rodreick said.

Hayden expressed interest when Rodreick showed him legislation from other states that publically fund research, like New Jersey and California.

Minnesota has had similar bills introduced in the past, but they made little headway through committees. This time, Hayden said he’s very optimistic.

Rodreick said that one reason these bills are not heard as often is because fewer people have brain and spinal cord injuries than other diseases that demand research, like
cancer.

When an earlier bill for research did not make it in the Legislature, Rodreick began working heavily to publicize the need for research.

“So I spent the next probably nine months trying to build a coalition of paralyzed folks, a few organizations that advocate for those living with paralysis, and I did a couple of fundraisers really trying to draw attention to the issue,” Rodreick said.

He even made a documentary starring Vikings player Chris Kluwe spending a day in a wheelchair.

Rodreick hopes that this is the year. He said he would like to see the University do the research with the public funds because of Parr’s work.

“She is pretty far along in the process, and the concern is that when the money runs out from her current funding … that if she doesn’t receive any federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, she’s not quite sure where that research is going to end up,” Rodreick said.

There’s still a lot of research to be done before anyone can receive treatment to walk again. Hayden said that even if the research can’t do that, every little bit helps.

“Even if someone can regain the bladder and bowel functions, just think about how much better of a quality of life they would have and how much more dignity they would get back.”