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This is... Spinal Research. Alumnus moves from rock bands to medical labs to help people with spinal cord injuries by Nancy Kolsti


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Borgens, with registered veterinary technician Crystyn Ruth and Kady.
Borgens, with registered veterinary technician Crystyn Ruth and Kady.


That’s a headline that would make Richard Borgens (’70, ’73 M.S.) ecstatic. The director of Purdue University’s Center for Paralysis Research will be happy with any improvements his research can bring to the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.

“When you think of cures, you think of no paralysis at all, but for some quadriplegics, a ‘cure’ would be being paraplegics,” says Borgens, who was named a UNT Distinguished Alumnus in 1994. “Having use of your hands means the difference between feeding yourself or not, or holding certain jobs or not. It makes you less dependent. For others, the ‘cure’ is freedom from a respirator.”


Regenerating growth

The center, which Borgens founded in 1987, recently received FDA approval to implant devices producing weak electrical fields — about 1/250,000 of a volt — into humans with spinal cord injuries. Situated near the area of an injury, the device, known as an extraspinal oscillating field stimulator (OFS), will help to regenerate and guide growth in the damaged nerves. It will stay in the body for 14 weeks, with the electrical flow periodically reversed to guide nerve growth in both directions.

“Our bodies produce natural electrical fields that control growth and development. OFS units provide a way to generate growth when the natural fields are disrupted through nerve injury,” Borgens says.

Borgens and his researchers are first testing OFS units and the center’s other spinal injury treatments on dogs, paralyzed by natural causes, who have been brought to the center by their owners for help. If the dogs show improvement through the treatments, the treatments are tested on humans.


The Bricks and blackfly larvae

Borgens hardly expected to be a medical researcher when he entered North Texas during the late 1960s.

“I was an amateur naturalist as a kid. I remember being fascinated by salamanders regenerating legs,” he says. “But Texas had two constellations for musicians — Austin and Denton — and I chose to concentrate on music.”

A psychology major, Borgens spent most of his undergraduate years playing guitar with his band, The Bricks. His group of musician friends included Don Henley, who achieved fame with the Eagles, and Jimmie Vaughan, older brother of blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“All of us lived together in the Century House Apartments and the Stella Street Apartments,” Borgens says.

A short stint in the Army as a medic made Borgens feel ready for something more than rock ’n’ roll. He returned to North Texas to earn a master’s degree in biology and took a job in the lab of Regents Professor Kenneth Stewart, picking blackfly larvae out of stream samples.

“My wife was pregnant with twins, and I thought I would have to drop out to go to work. Dr. Stewart saved me by giving me that job,” he says.

David Redden, now Professor Emeritus of biological sciences, also encouraged Borgens to become a researcher.

“I’m not certain I would be doing what I’m doing now if I had not met Dr. Redden,” Borgens says.


Life’s devotion

After earning his doctoral degree at Purdue, Borgens won a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Paraplegia Foundation to study at Yale University. He decided to devote his life to the treatment of spinal cord injuries after attending the foundation’s annual convention and seeing several hundred people in wheelchairs.

“A lot of them were in bad shape. I realized what a horribly impoverished life many of them lead,” he says.

An estimated 250,000 Americans have severe spinal cord injuries, with 9,000 to 12,000 new injuries reported every year, according to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

“The most frequently occurring age at the time of injury is 19, and 19-year-olds usually don’t have good jobs that provide disability pay,” he says.

The U.S. government spends an estimated $20 to $40 million each year on spinal cord injury research. Much of the research is conducted at university centers like Borgens’.


Pets lead the way

The Center for Paralysis Research studies two types of treatments for spinal cord injury — those to prevent loss of functions immediately after the injury, and those to revive functions years later.

“Many people think a spinal cord injury is a spinal cord injury. But an early injury is a separate problem from an injury that is many years old,” Borgens says.

He points out that spinal cord injuries cause not just loss of mobility, but also respiratory and numerous other physical problems, particularly in quadriplegics.

“If you talk to (actor) Christopher Reeve, you’ll probably learn he would rather be able to breathe normally than move his arms,” he says. “Quadriplegics also want to be free from autonomic dysreflexia, in which a small unnoticed sensation, like a bowel blockage, can trigger rapid heartbeat and other problems and lead to death.”

People who sustained injuries many years ago may benefit from the drug 4-aminopyridine, which the center developed and tested on paralyzed dogs. The drug allows a nerve impulse to bypass blockage at a spinal cord injury site and restore functions. Twenty of 31 dogs gained greater control of their hind legs and increased sensation shortly after dosage. The drug is now in human clinical trials in many medical centers in the United States and Canada.

People with new spinal injuries may eventually be injected with liquid polymers shortly after injury occurs. The polymer seals and plugs up holes in the nerve fibers, rescuing them from death and rescuing functions, Borgens says. The center is seeking FDA approval to test the polymers on humans.


Hope for the future

The center’s main area of research, however, is testing OFS units on humans with recent injuries, a collaboration with the Indiana University School of Medicine. Seven of the 13 dogs receiving OFS implants were walking within six months, and two walked as well as dogs that were not injured.

Borgens hopes OFS units will be tested on 20 humans this year but cautions that the device isn’t a “magic potion” to allow people to resume all functions.

“I would be a super-happy guy if, through our experimental treatments, a quadriplegic’s ability to grasp items increases,” he says. “What we look forward to in all our treatments is improving the quality of life for paraplegics and quadriplegics. If we get more than that, then it will be delightful.”

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