Why is Martin E. Schwab a Wings for Life World Run hero? The Swiss neurobiologist made a discovery that enabled science to understand why injured nerves within the spinal cord don’t regrow – a quantum leap forward that changed everything. With support from Wings for Life, Schwab is searching for solutions to improve the lives of people with spinal cord injury, making important steps toward the foundation’s objective of finding a cure.
Schwab, who has been working at the Institute of Brain Research at the University of Zurich and at the ETH Zurich for 33 years, conducted pioneering work from an early stage in his career.
“The nervous system is incredibly complicated and the best machine in the world. I became very interested in its development … I was eager to understand how this miracle occurs and works,” Schwab says. The spinal cord in particular fascinated him:
“An injury to a nerve in the finger, arm, or leg is easily repaired. An injury to the spinal cord, however, is only repaired very badly or not at all. This made me wonder. Why can one part of the nervous system make a nerve fibre grow again, while another part – in the event of an injury to the spinal cord or brain – can’t? I wanted to crack that nut.”
He discovered growth inhibitors, previously unknown proteins that block the regeneration of nerve fibres. It was a completely new concept.
Schwab explains, “On a very general level, these growth inhibitors – so-called Nogo proteins – are like a red light in traffic. If one covers the red light with a bag, one can no longer see the light and drives on. So if one covers this active site, nerve fibres continue to grow.”
Once scientists realized that this “red light” existed, they could start exploring how to overcome it, and the revelation triggered a huge step forward. When Schwab started his work, doctors told patients to get used to the idea of spending the rest of their lives in a wheelchair. But today the situation is different. Researchers are gaining more knowledge and have been able to stimulate the regeneration of injured nerve fibres in the spinal cord and brain.
When asked if there could be a breakthrough within the next few years, Schwab enthuses, “We certainly hope so!” and mentions a clinical trial starting in Europe, as well as a study specifically focused on walking that is financed by Wings for Life.
Of course, research takes time and progress is often incremental. So what expectations are realistic? Schwab assesses, “Spinal cord injury affects millions of nerve fibres … But restoring important functions such as breathing, bladder and bowel control, standing, and walking – perhaps from the bed to the bathroom – is a goal we could accomplish in the near future.”