Actor Reeve, Philanthropist Boost UCI Spinal Research Goal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the help of actor Christopher Reeve and Orange County philanthropist Joan Irvine Smith, UC Irvine officials launched a fund-raising campaign Wednesday to establish what would be one of the few spinal cord research centers in the nation.

The Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which could open within two years, would concentrate on developing treatments to repair and regenerate neurological function in spinal cord patients.

"New discoveries would enhance the chances for recovery of function," said Reeve, famous for his role as Superman in a series of movies. He was paralyzed seven months ago when he shattered two neck vertebrae after being thrown from a horse in Virginia. "I view this research effort and this program as a prototype for future research centers worldwide."

UC Irvine officials are seeking a $5-million endowment--expected to be raised within two years--to fund the research center, which would be in the school's College of Medicine. Toward that end, Smith, a longtime UC Irvine benefactor, handed university officials a check for $250,000 Wednesday morning and promised another $750,000 if the school can raise at least $2 million.

For Smith, the center would wed her interests in equestrian activities and raising the profile of the College of Medicine, which already runs a teaching facility at a spinal cord treatment center in Long Beach. She approached UCI officials months ago with the idea for the center after media coverage of Reeve's accident.

"The courage and perseverance Christopher and his wife, Dana, have shown over the last several months are truly extraordinary," Smith said. "I'm honored to do what I can to help him and the thousands of other individuals suffering from spinal cord injuries."

To spur interest in the center, UC Irvine and Smith will award an annual prize of $50,000 to the scientist who advances spinal cord research the most in a single year. The first Christopher Reeve Research Medal will be bestowed Sept. 15 at the Oaks Fall Classic, an annual equestrian competition at Smith's San Juan Capistrano ranch.

"Yesterday, you played Superman," Smith told Reeve via telephone at a news conference Wednesday. "Today, you are Superman."

UCI officials said that within 10 years the center would help bring about a solution to the problem of correcting neurological disorders.

The key to reversing spinal cord injuries lies in discovering how to regenerate nerve cells around the damaged cord, scientists say. Patients who have suffered from spinal cord injuries for the shortest amount of time stand the best chance of benefiting from the new regenerative research. Scientists have scored minor successes with cell regeneration in laboratory animals.

"Hopefully, we can translate that to humans," Dean Thomas Cesario, of the UC Irvine College of Medicine, said.

In addition to regenerative research, the center would also study a broad range of spinal cord injury prevention measures and treatments, which would also help individuals with multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease and other neurological disorders. If it meets its funding goal, UC Irvine will then recruit leading scientists in spinal cord research to the university.

"Experts are telling us we are on the verge of some great breakthroughs," said Cesario, who will coordinate center efforts with a national research group called the American Paralysis Assn. "But the only way that will happen is if we can do the research."

Approximately 250,000 Americans have spinal cord injuries and another 12,000 are injured each year, according to the American Paralysis Assn. Traffic accidents, violent crime and sports injuries are principally responsible for most spinal cord trauma, whose health care costs reach about $8.7 billion annually, officials added.

"This is really the right place for the center," Cesario said. "Orange County sees its share of spinal cord injuries right here on our beaches."

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