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The Physicians Committee

Spinal Cord Injury: Nonanimal Research Shows Great Promise

By Kristie Sullivan, M.P.H.

Imagine that you are drugged with an anesthetic. You are strapped face down to a device. Your skin and back muscle are cut away, a section of your bony spine is removed, and a machine drops a seven-pound weight onto your exposed spinal cord. You are sewn back together and wake up, unable to move your legs or go to the bathroom. You have leg pain so severe you want to chew through your muscle.

A week later you are offered sugary cereal as an incentive to complete neurobehavioral tests as researchers try to determine your sensitivity to temperature or your ability to walk on a treadmill or a rotating rod. After that, you might have a pump surgically inserted into your injured back. You are anesthetized and pumped full of formaldehyde. You never wake up.

Cruelty 101
Cruelty 101 adThis is exactly what happens to nearly 270 mice and rats every year as students participate in the Ohio State University Spinal Cord Injury Research Techniques course, which PCRM doctors have nicknamed “Cruelty 101.”

When PCRM learned of this National Institutes of Health-sponsored, five-year summer course, we began a campaign to encourage OSU to develop a more ethical model of human spinal cord injury. Many PCRM members and thousands of other physicians and laypersons have written OSU and signed petitions in support.

Neurologists Demand an Audience
On February 1, 2006, PCRM physicians Aysha Akhtar and Daran Haber delivered more than 300 petitions signed by neurologists and neurosurgeons from across the country to OSU President Karen Holbrook at a university board of directors meeting. The petitioners asked OSU to increase its investment in human clinical studies in spinal cord injury, and to move away from attempts to model injuries in animals, many of whom suffer in the process.

As these doctors know, hundreds of thousands of people are counting on spinal cord injury treatment breakthroughs. That’s why it is crucial that researchers use the best possible research methods—not outdated animal experiments.

Human-Based Research Shows Potential
There are better ways to study spinal cord injury. In vitro research using human neural cell lines or whole spinal cord culture can provide information about the injured tissue itself, as well as screen for potential therapies. For example, a group of London researchers found that damage to spinal cord neurons in cell culture was prevented by inhibiting a specific enzyme.

Noninvasive imaging techniques can be used to visualize tissue injury and monitor the effects of experimental therapies. By studying nerve-muscular connections in both uninjured and spinal cord-injured patients, scientists have found spinal mechanisms that are responsible for coordinating opposing muscle movements.

The Human Spinal Cord Injury Model project at the University of Miami combines the above techniques, as well as analysis of injured spinal cord tissue, to develop a better understanding of spinal cord injury in humans.

Clinicians have made advances in the understanding and treatment of muscle and nerve pain, muscle spasticity, pressure sores, continence, and exercise physiology and fitness, to help people who are suffering now. Techniques like body weight support and functional electronic stimulation are even helping some walk.  

It is urgent that more researchers are encouraged to develop techniques like these.

What You Can Do
PCRM will continue to push OSU to reform Cruelty 101. We especially need the support of OSU alumni and health professionals. To find out how you can help, contact campaign coordinator Kristie Sullivan at or 202-686-2210, ext. 335.


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