Spinal cord bill supporters make final plea to legislators

Matthew and Gabe Rodreick posing for our January feature.
Matthew and Gabe Rodreick posing for our January feature.
Photo: Tony Nelson.

For supporters of a bill that would fund progressive spinal cord research in Minnesota, these next few days will be crucial in convincing legislators that their cause is worthy enough to make the cut.

As of this morning, the bill -- known as the Jack Jablonski/Gabe Rodreick Bill, after two young Minnesotans who suffered life-changing spinal cord injuries -- is not included in the Health and Human Services Finance budget in the House, authored by committee chair Rep. Tom Huntley, D-Duluth.

Cover: Stalking the Blue Demon
Spinal cord injury bill passes first hurdle

But the committee will hear amendments to the omnibus bill this morning, and one Republican representative is expected to request the spinal cord bill be added back in, says Matthew Rodreick, Gabe's father and the bill's most ardent supporter.

"That gives it a shot," says Matthew. "I don't know how strong a shot, but I've been trying to get folks to write in, and hopefully lots of people have, like they did the last couple times. That might sway Huntley a little bit."

If it does die in the House today, it could still be resurrected Monday, when Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, introduces the Senate version of the omnibus bill.

The story behind the bill was the subject of our Jan. 23 cover, "Stalking the Blue Demon." The bill would provide $4 million in funding per year for two years for curative spinal cord and traumatic brain injury research.

If it does pass, the money will likely help fund spinal cord research already underway at the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute. More about the research, from the feature:

Here's how [Dr. Ann] 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.

The House committee hearing begins at 10 a.m. Check back this afternoon for an update.

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