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Spinal-cord crusader hopeful

Cell regeneration, transplants excite famed Man in Motion

Rick Hansen (right) greets Scott Coates, a Manitoban who had a spinal-cord injury 22 years ago. Manitoba Health Minister Erin Selby (right) pledged spinal-cord research funds.

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Rick Hansen (right) greets Scott Coates, a Manitoban who had a spinal-cord injury 22 years ago. Manitoba Health Minister Erin Selby (right) pledged spinal-cord research funds. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

It's been four decades since a 15-year-old Rick Hansen was thrown from the back of a pickup truck and suffered a serious spinal-cord injury that would leave him bound to a wheelchair.

In that time, Hansen, famous for his Man in Motion World Tour and charitable foundation, has seen great advances in research and treatment that give him hope that someone suffering a similar injury will someday enjoy a better fate.

"My belief is -- and the reason I'm engaged in this work -- is to hope that the legacy for the next generation of newly injured... is that they will walk again," he said in Winnipeg Tuesday.

Hansen was on hand as the Manitoba government renewed its commitment to funding local spinal-cord research and patient support for another five years. Health Minister Erin Selby said the province would provide $3 million over the next five years. The money continues work that's been going on since 2008.

"When I was injured, it took hours for the paramedics to arrive and to medevac me out to a local rural (B.C.) hospital," Hansen said.

After several hospital transfers, he was finally taken by ambulance to a major hospital in the B.C.'s Lower Mainland, where he was operated on days later. There was no specialized treatment centre for spinal-cord injuries at the time.

Contrast that with the experience in many parts of Canada today: Treatment begins at the scene and the patient is transported to a spinal-cord centre. Surgery, where necessary, is done immediately. Drugs are given to reduce swelling and minimize damage.

The result has been better patient outcomes.

Hansen is particularly excited about the prospect of spinal-cord cell regeneration and cell transplants that could give many injured people the use of their legs again. His foundation assists some of this research as well as research trials and information-sharing among scientists.

At the time of the Man in Motion tour in the mid-1980s that saw Hansen wheel more than 40,000 kilometres through close to three dozen countries, there was skepticism about the possibility for spinal-cord cells to regenerate. Not any more, Hansen said.

"This is no longer a hypothetical possibility. The principles have been proven that the spinal cord can regrow, that we can create levels of new neural tissue. So now it's possible," he said.

One of the earliest spinal-cord research centres in North America was formed at the University of Manitoba in the late 1980s.

Dr. Larry Jordan, its founding director, said Tuesday it's conceivable that in the next decade or so, someone who sustained an injury as severe as Hansen's could walk again.

"I see no reason why not," the U of M physiology professor said. "There's been dramatic progress over the last several decades."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

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