Atlanta, GA,
09:00 AM

Shepherd Center’s Clinical Research Program Celebrates 30 Years of Success

Written by Lesley Hudson, MA
Co-Project Director, Spinal Cord Injury Model System at Shepherd Center

As Shepherd Center celebrates its 40th anniversary year in 2015, the Virginia C. Crawford Research Institute, which started as the Clinical Research Program in 1985, is celebrating its 30-year milestone. As we take a look back over the past three decades and review some of the most significant milestones, it is clear that our humble beginnings have paved the way for significant strides in research related to spinal cord injury, brain injury and multiple sclerosis.

The first milestone in the history of research at Shepherd Center was the awarding of the Spinal Cord Injury Model System (SCIMS) grant in 1982. Coinciding with the occupancy of the newly constructed Shepherd Spinal Center at 2020 Peachtree Road in Atlanta, this grant, in the amount of $250,000 per year, paved the way for the future development of a research program at Shepherd.

Throughout the following few years, staff who were interested in research activities came to me, as one of the SCIMS project directors, to ask whether that grant could help them get started on research they were interested in conducting. Unfortunately, only a limited amount of the work that needed funding was able to be incorporated into the SCIMS grant, and in 1985, a formal request was made to hospital administration for operational funds that could serve as seed money for expanded research efforts. This money eventually permitted some pilot work to take place, and also provided support for the work needed to write other grant applications and expand funding for research across the board.

In 1985, the Clinical Research Department was established, using the SCIMS grant as the centerpiece, and allowing for much-needed operational dollars to expand and apply for funding in a variety of areas. I served as the founding director of this department. The Dole Foundation was instrumental in launching a significant project on employment after injury.

Also in that year, James Krause, Ph.D., joined the research staff. His national reputation resulted in several federal grants and expanded the Shepherd portfolio. Additional private foundations came on board with smaller grants, usually of one-year duration. While this was progress, the next push was determined to be for larger support, over multiple years, to create a broader and more secure foundation upon which to build the research program.

Between 1985 and 1995, several important developments in Shepherd Center research occurred:

  • SCIMS grants were awarded for 1985-1990 and 1990-1995, at an increase to $500,000 per year.
  • The Assistive Technology Center opened, providing multiple research project opportunities.
  • Parastep research began. This study used functional electrical stimulation (FES) to enable independent, unbraced standing and short-distance walking by qualified subjects.
  • MS research began with the founding of the Shepherd Harvard MS Research Institute.

Momentum was building quickly, and in 1995, Michael Jones, Ph.D., joined Shepherd Center’s staff as vice-president of research and technology. Shortly thereafter, the Virginia C. Crawford Research Institute (CRI) was founded, and that new identity brought expanded possibilities for funding and collaboration. The next decade was marked by a series of significant steps forward:

  • SCIMS grants were awarded for 1995-2000 and 2000-2006, at $500,000 per year.
  • Shepherd Center was one of five sites in the nation selected to conduct a major clinical trial to determine if body-weight-supported treadmill training helped to stimulate walking.
  • A partnership with the University of Georgia launched a biomedical research and education initiative to study central nervous system injuries and illnesses.
  • Shepherd Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology received funding to establish a national Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC). This effort continues today and has resulted in a $15 million for research to date.
  • The Marcus Foundation contributed $3.2 million to clinical trials of ProCord, a procedure that used cells from the patient’s own body to promote SCI recovery.

Over the years, Shepherd Center established itself in several key areas within the rehabilitation research community. The critical mass of new patients admitted each year, as well as those being followed for years after discharge, provided a valuable resource for collaboration with other research entities. Also, the growing reputation for clinical excellence, and the capacity to conduct accurate research, on time, and within budget made Shepherd Center more likely to be awarded research grants, in particular at the federal level. Shepherd Center was now very competitive in this area.

Closing out the 30-year period being highlighted from 2005-2015, Shepherd Center distinguished itself in a variety of research endeavors:

  • The first diaphragm pacing stimulation (DPS) device was implanted in a Shepherd Center patient.
  • The Lokomat, a treadmill integrated with robotics, arrived for use in both therapy and research.
  • Armed to Succeed, a program of research into the best drug treatment for acquired brain injury, began.
  • Shepherd Center researchers received an unprecedented five new grants from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) in 2008.
  • Shepherd Center participated in the Geron/Asterias acute SCI stem cell trial.
  • Exoskeleton research began with a Vanderbilt collaboration and a Parker Hannifin partnership.
  • The Hulse Spinal Cord Injury Lab was established.
  • PCORI, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, funded a peer support and patient education project at Shepherd.
  • The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation awarded a grant to fund the Transition Support Program at Shepherd.
  • SCIMS grants were awarded for 2006-2011 and 2011-2016, at $500,000 per year.

Total federal funding received for this program, the founding research award with which this story started, is $16 million and counting.

Since 1985, the level of extramural funding for the Shepherd Center Clinical Research Program and Crawford Research Institute has risen from $250,000 to its current total of more than $4 million.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.