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Nick Schoenhoff, left, says he is proof of the advances supported by institutes like the one established by Hansen, right.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Rick Hansen's life work – to improve the lives of people with spinal-cord injuries – got a generous boost Wednesday, as the federal government pledged $35-million in new funding to his non-profit foundation.

The funds will span five years and support the work of the Rick Hansen Institute, which helps finance research on treatments for spinal-cord injury, as well as an injury registry and other information-sharing tools.

Hansen is optimistic that, one day, paralysis will be the rare, not inevitable, outcome after an accident involving the spinal cord.

"Years ago, scientists and clinicians were fearful of being discredited if they would say that, indeed, we will be able to have people return to full physical function," Hansen said in an interview. "Now there's more and more people stepping up and saying, 'We will get there.'"

As the former Paralympian points out, it's a complex challenge. A huge focus of the institute has been developing "best practices," starting with paramedics. Newer guidelines include moving the patient as little as possible, speeding up the time to surgery, the use of steroids to counteract dangerous swelling, and a much faster start to rehab than a patient like Hansen himself would have experienced back in 1973, when he was injured in a car accident.

After a lengthy wait for paramedics, Hansen was transferred multiple times, waited two days for surgery and was immobilized for months before undergoing rehab. Today, a patient is likely to be flown by helicopter to a site specializing in spinal-cord injury and operated on within hours.

Nick Schoenhoff, 21, is a living proof of the shifts in the past decade. After a snowboarding accident in which the then-13-year-old landed on his head, Schoenhoff was quickly assessed and flown to Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital for surgery within hours. After initially experiencing paralysis from the neck down, he now uses a manual wheelchair and can walk with the use of canes.

"Considering how serious it was and how remote, it turned out the absolute best it possibly could have," Schoenhoff says. He's now completing a McMaster University science degree in neurology and works summers with many of the institute's researchers.

Neurosurgeon and scientist Michael Fehlings, the medical director of the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, says the funding has had a significant impact on his field.

"Spinal-cord injury is one of the worst things that can happen to an individual, in terms of loss of their independence – and it's much more common that previously thought," he says.

Some of the institute's previous funding – $30-million in 2007 – funded a clinical trial led by Fehlings, which found that surgery within 24 hours of an acute spinal-cord injury accounts for a 20-per-cent reduction in permanent paralysis rates.

Looking to the future, Fehlings is hoping that funded trials will focus on how certain drugs, bio-engineered materials and stem cells can repair and regenerate critical cells.

His current work involves studying the potential benefits of the drug riluzole, which appears to slow down the rate of nerve degeneration. He says that, because this would be an off-patent use (it is used for ALS), the drug company that makes it isn't interested in funding the research – he's looking for other support.

Hansen says he hopes the institute will inspire more of these kinds of crossovers within and outside the neuroscience field – extending to the fields of genomics and stem-cell research for answers.

"Canada is a leader in this," says Hansen. "This will, I believe, be an incredible call to action for so may people to come and join the challenge."

SCI statistics

There are 86,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in Canada.

There are 4,300 new SCI cases each year.

Traumatic SCI occurs most commonly among men 20 to 29 years old.

Financial requirements over a lifetime for each individual can vary from $1.5-million (paraplegic) to $3-million (quadriplegic).

The estimated economic cost of traumatic SCI for newly injured Canadians is $2.7-billion a year (health care, equipment and modifications, long-term care). Costs are greater when including those with chronic injuries.

Canadians with traumatic SPI compared with the general population are: readmitted to hospital 2.6 times more often; require contact with a physician 2.7 times more often; require 30 times more hours of home-care services; have a 15-to-30-year shorter life expectancy.

Source: Rick Hansen Institute