GRAND RAPIDS — With a new project, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and the University of Michigan are laying the foundation for further research collaborations.
A new three-year research initiative into improving exercise and physical activity for people with spinal cord injuries is the first major research partnership between the two organizations, which over the years have shared ideas and projects through national professional groups.
Mary Free Bed and U-M now are working together in a formal partnership on a project based in Grand Rapids that’s backed by a $400,000 grant from the Encino, Calif.-based Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which funds spinal cord injury research at nonprofit organizations.
As that projects proceeds, the partners are looking at other research work they can perform together on spinal injuries and expanding into care for strokes, brain injuries and other areas, said Dr. John Butzer, director of research and innovation at Mary Free Bed.
Mary Free Bed and U-M already anticipate another grant-funded research project going forward on spinal cord injuries, Butzer told MiBiz.
“I see this as the beginning of a true partnership to work together in the future for spinal cord and, as we develop this, for a whole variety of conditions affecting people with disabilities,” he said.
Two specific areas already under consideration are treating pain through rehabilitation and without the excessive use of addictive opioids and evaluating young children for cerebral palsy, Butzer said.
Playing to strengths
With total research funding of more than $470 million, the University of Michigan brings to the fledgling partnership a deep expertise and staff in medical research. Mary Free Bed is relatively new at research, but offers expertise in clinical treatments and a large patient base throughout the state for testing new techniques for care and rehabilitation.
“It brings their strength and our strength together,” Butzer said. “We think that by working together and potentially involving patients throughout the state of Michigan that we’ll be more competitive for national grants and bringing in more money, and on the other side, we can affect a larger group of people with disabilities. We can be more effective working together.
“By collaborating, we’re able to advance faster and better, and serve more people.”
In forming a partnership with Mary Free Bed, the university wanted to explore research “that really matters to the lives of our patients … topics that our patients identify are important to them that we then jointly could conduct research projects on,” said Denise Tate, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center in Ann Arbor.
Michigan Medicine wants to look at the medical issues that people with spinal cord injuries face as well as social issues such as improving their quality of life, getting back to work, and finding ways to afford their ongoing care, Tate said.
Researchers at both organizations also have an interest in activity, exercise and promoting healthy living for those patients as they age. They also want to help develop new best practices for patients’ specific medical issues, such as pressure sore prevention, diet and nutrition, and the physical living environment, she said.
The present research project backed by the Craig H. Nielsen Foundation — now in its second year and designed to promote healthy living for people with spinal cord injuries — has generated some novel approaches to physical rehabilitation, Butzer said.
In one instance, the project helped a patient who suffered a spinal injury 30 years ago and never worked out regularly. She participated in the project and regained enough strength and built confidence to where she could complete a 5K race using a handcycle.
Mary Free Bed continues to seek new participants for the project from the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and lakeshore areas. Participants must be 18 years old or older, and have experienced a traumatic spinal cord injury at least three months prior. They cannot presently be involved in an organized exercise program.
Having a larger patient population to recruit from also could lead to the two partners becoming involved in clinical trials for new drugs or medical devices that can improve function for a person with a disability, Tate said.
“Recruitment for clinical trials is, at times, very difficult. Having a population not only here in Ann Arbor or Southeast Michigan and also the west part of the state involved in a trial really gives us a much better chance to get a study completed on time and to get the results that we need,” Tate said. “One of the worst things you can have is to start the sophisticated, elaborate studies then find out you can’t recruit sufficient patients.”
U-M and Mary Free Bed started with care for patients with spinal cord injuries as a research focus because both have expertise in the area and an existing structure for collecting data on patients, following up with them, and educating family and caregivers.
Expanding the research partnership to pediatrics, traumatic brain injuries and stroke “is of great interest to us” for the future, Tate said.
“There are a number of other possibilities that we want to begin engaging in terms of having this collaboration and research,” she said.
The collaboration with U-M broadens the research unit Mary Free Bed formed earlier this decade.
The rehab hospital is now finishing up a five-year project with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and Northwestern University on stroke rehabilitation. Mary Free Bed also has another project pending.
As well, the Grand Rapids-based Mary Free Bed works with Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine to host medical students working in research rotations.
“Medicine never stands still. There are always advances in medicine, and we think that those advances should be made in the state of Michigan on an equal basis with other states, so we want to be a leader in the change,” Butzer said. “We provide great care now, but that great care today is going to be different tomorrow. Who’s going to make those new discoveries to improve the care? We think they should be made here. It brings it to our patients faster in that way.”