Gabe Rodreick hopes U of M research could be key to walking again

Sen. Jeff Hayden introduces bill to fund curative spinal cord science

"Some may have insurance, but that often runs out," says Hayden. "The state is always the safety net for everybody."

Inside the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, James Dutton, director of the iPS Cell Facility, pulls an image of a microscope slide onto a computer screen. It looks something like a picture of the night sky, only the stars are purple, and the galaxy, running through a winding ravine, is made of neon green clusters.

The picture, Dr. Parr explains, is actually a very small section of a mouse's spine, sliced "like a loaf of bread." The purple dots are nuclei, and the green marks are special cells developed by Parr and her team, dyed so they can differentiate them.

Matthew (left) and his son Gabe have traveled the world searching for a cure. Now they hope to find answers right here in Minnesota.
Tony Nelson
Matthew (left) and his son Gabe have traveled the world searching for a cure. Now they hope to find answers right here in Minnesota.
Growing up, Gabe was a talented piano player and natural athlete
courtesy of Matthew Rodreick
Growing up, Gabe was a talented piano player and natural athlete

After completing her residency at the University of Toronto, Parr worked at the University of Miami's Project to Cure Paralysis, the country's most comprehensive spinal cord cure research center, where she conducted cell testing on large animals. She came to the University of Minnesota's Department of Neurosurgery two years ago to begin her research here.

A keen sense of justice originally attracted her to the research, along with a belief that the debilitating condition is simply unfair.

"It also seems to me, biologically, that it makes sense that there is a way to circumvent this," she says. "That there is a way to force the spinal cord to re-grow itself."

Here's how Parr's research works: When a spinal cord breaks, it almost never fractures into two pieces. Much more commonly, it's simply bruised. But the injury causes the cells around the injury to die, which is why the spine stops working. Specifically, the bruise or lesion kills off what is known as myelin, the material that insulates neurons and allows them to send signals to other parts of the body.

Picture insulation over a wire. If the insulation is gone, the wire cannot send its message. Without myelin, the spinal cord cannot function.

The basic scientific principle behind Parr's work is that cells called oligodendrocytes can rebuild the myelin — re-insulating the wires. But it's not as simple as just implanting oligodendrocytes. Instead, scientists have to implant stem cells that will eventually transform into oligodendrocytes.

In the past, researchers conducting similar experiments have used an embryonic stem cell — the original human cell that gives rise to all other cells. But since embryonic stem cells are by definition taken from another person, the body can reject the foreign cells. So instead, Parr and her team will take a cell from the patient, and manipulate its genes so it resembles an embryonic cell, which can then transform into the oligodendrocytes.

In other words, if a patient like Gabe eventually does receive the transplant, he would also be his own donor. This would have been impossible just a few years ago, before researchers Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon discovered how to reprogram ordinary adult skin cells into what acts like embryonic stem cells. The development won them the Nobel Prize in 2012.

If Parr's research makes it to human trials, it could be an enormous leap forward for cure research. Only one stem cell-based cure has ever made it to that phase in the past, the "Geron Study." Though scientists conducting the research believed it showed promise, the study was shut down early when the funding stopped. Parr would be in a prime position to benefit from the passage of the Jablonski-Rodreick bill. Her research is now mostly funded by a grant from an anonymous donor, but that money is going to dry up before the research is done. She's in the process of applying for a grant from the National Institute of Health, but that funding is extremely selective, and the competition is fierce.

"Funding is always the key parameter," says Dr. Walt Low, also of the University of Minnesota. "The more you can raise in terms of funding, the more you can put on a project."

Historically, funding has always been a problem with spinal cord research, which is why the science has moved relatively slowly until lately.

"It's a challenging field for research scientists," says Smith of Unite 2 Fight Paralysis. "Trying to attract bright people into the field has been difficult, because it's a very complex problem, and there's not a lot of money in it."

Gabe's friends file into his dad's home gym around 6 p.m., a garage space Matthew and his contractor neighbor remodeled after the accident. The room smells of campfire from the wood-burning stove providing heat on this cold January evening. A treadmill, weights, a harness, and other specialized exercise equipment have been pushed to the side to make space for a drum set, some amps, and a keyboard.

Gabe sits in the middle of the group, behind a microphone, and begins rocking back and forth in his chair, belting throaty lyrics over the scratchy PA. The band plays a song called "Blue Demon," which Gabe wrote about his accident.

"Blue demon/ What do you want from me?/ Blue demon/ Can't you just let me go on living?/ You just sit there in wait/ While using him as my bait/ It's impossible to choose/ When I got everything to lose/ Blue demon/ I'm broken/ So leave me be."

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