Spinal cord injury bill passes first hurdle

Matthew and Gabe Rodreick testified at Monday's hearing.
Matthew and Gabe Rodreick testified at Monday's hearing.
Photo: Tony Nelson for City Pages

A bill that scientists say could be key to furthering spinal cord injury research in Minnesota passed its first committee hearing Monday afternoon.

Introduced by Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, the proposed legislation would designate $8 million from the state's general fund to curative spinal cord and traumatic brain injury research over a period of two years. Among those testifying at the Health, Human Services and Housing hearing Monday was the bill's namesake, Gabe Rodreick, who sustained a devastating spinal cord injury while body surfing in Costa Rica more than four years ago.

SEE ALSO: Sen. Jeff Hayden introduces spinal cord injury research bill

"I was broken on that day," said Rodreick. "My body was broken. Everyday since I've been wanting to be fixed."

Gabe's father, Matthew Rodreick, who first brought the idea for the bill to Hayden, also testified Monday, and talked about the expenses his family has incurred since the injury.

He said costs stemming from Gabe's accident reached almost $1 million the first year, and urged lawmakers that finding a cure would be a smart long-term investment for the state.

"In my opinion, cure is a good health care policy," said Matthew. "An investment in cure is a good health care policy."

As we detailed in our January cover story, scientists at the University of Minnesota like Dr. Ann Parr believe the funding could be critical in continuing stem cell research that could one day lead to a cure for a spinal cord injury. Here's how the science works, from the feature:

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.

Not everyone at Monday's hearing testified in favor of the bill. Nikki Villavicencio-Tollison was among two people who spoke critically, questioning whether the money could be put to better use. As an example, Villavicencio-Tollison cited Minnesota' STAR program, which helps people with disabilities access assistive technology, and has continually faced cuts, she said.

"What could we be doing with [$8 million] for the better of the whole community?" said Villavicencio-Tollison, adding she wasn't against the research in general.

Asked about the criticisms after the hearing, Matthew Rodreick dismissed the comments as "comparing apples and oranges." If other services are lacking funds, he said, "they should ask for that."

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