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Smith Lecturer Reflects Optimism for Treatment of Spinal Cord Injuries

By Emily Drew '04

October 4, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Mary Bartlett Bunge
Mary Bartlett Bunge

Place your palms together. Bend down the pointer, middle, and pinkie fingers of your right hand, so that only your ring finger is extended. Now try to lift your right hand's ring finger. Try as you might, it can't be done.

Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge used that example to demonstrate the feeling of paralysis to a Davidson College audience during her Oct. 8 lecture, "From the Laboratory to Superman: Repairing the Broken Spinal Cord." Appearing as the college's 2001 Smith Lecturer in the C. Shaw Smith 900 Room of the Alvarez Union, Dr. Bunge talked about her longtime study of spinal cord injury, and of the resulting developments in the field.

She was introduced to the audience by her long-time friend, Vail Professor Robert Williams, former vice president for academic affairs and current Russian specialist in the history department.

Dr. Bunge and her late husband, Dr. Richard Bunge, collaborated throughout their lives together on pioneering work in Schwann cell research, and she is internationally recognized for her involvement with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Her research focuses on the development and repair of nervous tissue, especially of the spinal cord after injury, with the goal of improving functional outcome by combining cellular bridges to assist in spinal cord regeneration.

From 2000 B.C. until 1980 A.D., Dr. Bunge said, spinal cord injury was a hopeless, incurable, untreatable disability. In 1980, however, a breakthrough study determined that central nerve fibers could be regenerated if their surrounding environment was manipulated.

Since then, public interest and awareness has grown, quantity and quality of research has expanded, and funding has increased. Dr. Bunge spoke of the advancements at the Miami Project, where she works, and of the collaboration with other organizations dedicated to spinal cord research.

Dr. Bunge gave a brief anatomy lesson to the audience, followed by national statistics on spinal cord injury. There are around 250,000 people in the U.S. suffering from spinal cord injury, with 10,000 new cases annually. Eighty-two percent of patients are men, since a greater number of males are involved in high-risk activities such as contact sports. Vehicular accidents account for almost half of all spinal cord injuries (48%). Sixty-six percent of all sports-related injuries result from diving.

"Spinal cord injury is so devastating because communication between the central and peripheral nervous system is broken," said Dr. Bunge. She explained that the central nervous system--including the spinal cord and the brain--must be able to send and receive signals from the peripheral nervous system. If contact is lost, no stimulation will arrive to the brain, which would ordinarily produce a signal for a person to react to stimulus such as a burn from a hot eye on a stove.

Spinal cord injury also affects other functions of a patient's body. The patient usually loses the ability to control bowel and urinary movements, and reproductive abilities are often lost in men; Osteoporosis is more likely, blood clots often form, and long-term pain can result. These effects--especially the digestive and reproductive problems--are the most worrisome for patients, Dr. Bunge said.

Dr. Bunge focuses much of her research on Schwann cells, which are found in the peripheral nervous system and which aid in the regeneration of nervous tissue. She illustrated her discussion of Schwann cell experimentation with a detailed slide show, and presented the results from different controls.

Schwann cells, she said, are valuable to spinal cord repair because they can be easily removed from healthy areas of a patient's body, and can be quickly grown in cultured colonies with large yields.

These Schwann cells can then be used to promote nerve growth in injured areas. She talked about the successful results of trials where Schwann cells were used to create a "bridge" of nerve cells over a break in the spinal cords of rats. The bridge was especially successful when enhanced with stimulation such as steroids or genetically engineered Schwann cells.

She also emphasized the importance of physical therapy in patients' recovery.

"While these various findings are encouraging," she said, "we don't want to bring to much hope yet. Research is so unpredictable that I can't mark future advancements or set dates to breakthroughs."

Dr. Bunge, however, is optimistic because the promise of so many experiments in a field that now involves many researcher and programs. "The possibilities are numerous, and teamwork is key," she said.

Dr. Bunge received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, and held postdoctoral positions at Harvard University and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has held faculty positions at Washington University and King's College in London. She is currently Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, Neurological Surgery, and Neurology, at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

She has received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award and the Wakeman Award for contributions to her field. Since 1957, she has written or collaborated on 28 books and monographs. Noted as an advocate for women in neuroscience, she helped organize the Society for Neuroscience's Committee on the Development of Women's Careers in Neuroscience, and received the first Mika Salpeter Women in Neuroscience Lifetime Achievement Award.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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