Spinal repair

Spinal repair

B.C. researchers are giving patients with spinal cord injuries new hope for mobility.
March 1, 2003

Chris Taylor* is a 29-year-old mechanic who spends his time figuring out the best way to repair engines.

Dr. Janice Eng is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Rehabilitation Sciences.

What do they have in common? A desire to fix things that are broken. And an important role in each other's lives.

It all began in Vancouver in 2001 when Taylor was injured in a car crash. Although he managed to make a partial recovery from the spinal cord injuries sustained in the accident, his quality of life and the chance to be pain free depended a great deal on advances in science and rehabilitation. And that's how he ended up on Dr. Eng's doorstep.

Dr. Eng is part of the Vancouver-based International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (ICORD) headed by Dr. John Steeves, which brings together hundreds of researchers with one aim: to promote recovery and increased independence for people with spinal cord injuries. Along with her team of researchers from the fields of medicine, neuroscience, and engineering, Dr. Eng is trying to determine the best way to rehabilitate patients with spinal cord injuries.

When Taylor became one of 22 patients hand-picked to participate in the testing of new and innovative rehabilitation techniques, the collaboration between the two started. Taylor and Dr. Eng would work together on a year-long project to determine how electrical stimulation can help people with spinal cord injuries recover some or all of their mobility. Patients are hooked up to a portable machine that stimulates muscle activity with an electrical current. Using cameras and sensors placed on patients, Dr. Eng and her team monitored Taylor and 21 other patients to determine their strength and endurance.

The research team analyzed simple things like walking speed, as well as more complex factors like the force generated in a patient's joints. The results were encouraging. Taylor and others with spinal cord injuries showed a marked improvement with electrical current stimulation. "He was one of our stars," says Dr. Eng, who is also an ICORD faculty member. "With the electrical stimulation, he could walk almost twice as fast."

Although Taylor found himself in a unique research study at ICORD, his injury profile was anything but. In fact, he easily fits the description of most Canadians with spinal cord injuries. Approximately 80 percent of those injuries are sustained by people under the age of 30. The majority are male. And in half of the cases, the spinal cord is not completely severed.

Fortunately for ICORD, people with spinal cord injuries have a reputation with physicians and scientists for being highly motivated and energetic when it comes to their rehabilitation. In Taylor's case, since his spinal cord was not completely severed he has great potential to recover mobility following intensive therapy.

ICORD says it is patients like Taylor who are key to the Centre's success. With his participation, Dr. Eng and other faculty members hope to advance their research projects and help millions of people overcome spinal cord injuries.

* Note Chris Taylor is a pseudonym used to protect the patient's identity.


The fastest way to make progress on spinal cord injuries is to make sure clinicians, scientists, and patients can interact daily. That's the whole idea behind ICORD. In fact, the interaction is meant to speed the transition from basic science discoveries, to clinical trials, to actual implementation, which ultimately gives patients a better chance to recover.

ICORD is the first Canadian research centre (and only the second in the world) to focus on bringing together patients and researchers from a variety of disciplines-all under one roof. The Centre is set to attract and retain leaders in the fields of medicine, physical therapy, kinesiology, engineering physics, occupational therapy, and neuroscience. It will also serve as a unique Canadian and global hub for investigating spinal cord injury by giving over 300 researchers a chance to conduct innovative research and work closely with patients.

Vancouver was an ideal choice for ICORD because the city is already home to 20 different groups of spinal cord injury researchers-all in various locations. But that's set to change. By 2005, ICORD will be located in a new 10,000 square-metre building located at Vancouver Hospital and financed, in part, with infrastructure support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

What's the big-picture impact of ICORD's work? The Centre hopes to improve the quality of life for the 36,000 Canadians already living with spinal cord injuries and the 1,100 new cases each year. ICORD's work could also play an important role in reducing the more than $1 billion that's spent each year in Canada caring for people with spinal cord injuries.


Perhaps Canada's most famous person with a spinal cord injury, Rick Hansen is widely credited with providing the leadership and vision necessary to bring ICORD from concept to reality.

As President and CEO of the Rick Hansen Institute, Hansen has demonstrated a deep commitment to ICORD and has recognized that the pace of spinal cord research can be dramatically accelerated if researchers are brought together under one roof. The Institute provided $1 million in start-up funds to help get researchers together in a virtual network that will run until ICORD moves into a new building in 2005. The Institute also matched a $2.25 million award from the British Columbia government to support the work of Dr. John Steeves, ICORD's director.

"The Institute was created to identify key programs and remove barriers that prevent faster translation of clinical trials into therapies that can help people. One of these programs is ICORD," says Hansen who is also working with principal partners like the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. "ICORD is a concrete example of the Institute's principles in action."

Hansen says that ICORD will soon evolve into a fully integrated research and treatment facility that will be the only one of its kind. It will also serve as a magnet for researchers from across Canada and around the world. ICORD is already attracting interest from other potential partners. The Rick Hansen Institute is negotiating with a major private sector donor for an additional $20 million in funding.