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VCU 1 of 4 centers in U.S. to provide nationally recognized care for both spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury

A VCU-led consortium of regional health providers has been designated 1 of 14 Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems Centers in this country. The centers focus on research and improving patient quality of life.

X-rays of spine Photo: Getty Images

A new designation for a regional consortium led by Virginia Commonwealth University will expand research efforts to improve patients’ quality of life and offer opportunities for patients to get some of the best available care for spinal cord injury in the country.

A center at Virginia Commonwealth University this month earned federal designation as one of only 14 Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Model Systems Centers in the U.S. The Center for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering (CERSE) in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation has been awarded this grant and will lead the Virginia Spinal Cord Injury Model System, a consortium with the Central Virginia VA Health Care System (CVHCS) and the Sheltering Arms Institute — a joint venture between Sheltering Arms and VCU Health.

This makes VCU one of only four centers in the nation to have a dual designation as a SCI and traumatic brain injury (TBI) model systems center. Both federal model systems center designations support research and education efforts to improve the lives of all who have sustained such injuries.

The new Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems Center designation includes a grant award from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, totaling $2.2 million over five years, to project director Ashraf Gorgey, Ph.D., a professor at CERSE in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and co-project director Zina Trost, Ph.D., integrative rehabilitation research scientist at CERSE and associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

The grant will support research on three projects. One, led by Gorgey, aims to improve hand and arm function to increase patients’ independence and quality-of-life. Another, led by Trost, will enroll participants in a national spinal cord injury database and conduct research studies on spinal cord injury, both in collaboration with other model systems centers and independently. A third, led by Paul Perrin, Ph.D., professor and director of the Social Justice in Disability and Health Lab in the Department of Psychology at VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, will focus on identifying sources of health inequities around spinal cord injury care to improve access and health outcomes.

“We are humbled to receive this award,” said Gorgey, who also serves as director of spinal cord injury research at CVHCS and will lead the study for improving hand and arm function. “It represents many years of hard work by our collaborative research team and the outstanding clinical care delivered by the Central Virginia VA Health Care System and Sheltering Arms Institute. The SCI Model Systems grant supports our continued dedication to research and real-world applicability to enhance the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.”

“Offering patients new avenues to get the care they need and clinicians access to the latest knowledge as it happens, has the very real potential to change lives,” Trost said.

The medical director of the grant is Timothy Lavis, M.D., chief of Spinal Cord Injuries and Disorders for CVHCS and senior SCI specialist for Sheltering Arms Institute. Researchers for these projects will include Carrie Peterson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at VCU College of Engineering, Lance Goetz, M.D., co-associate director of SCI Medicine Fellowships for CVHCS, and Amber Walter, DPT, clinical science manager for Sheltering Arms Institute.

“Exploring new ways to help patients regain their independence and to increase their ability to access care will give our team new opportunities to serve individuals in our region who’ve experienced a life-changing injury,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “This prestigious recognition puts our already renowned teams in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury care in a position to build on their success and make new discoveries that will benefit individuals far beyond our region.”

As a model systems center, the consortium across the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at VCU School of Medicine, Sheltering Arms Institute and CVHCS can contribute new findings to the national spinal cord injury database and conduct intensive research studies on spinal cord injury, both in collaboration with other model systems centers and independently, to enhance quality of life for spinal cord injury survivors.

“This is not just about our clinic or our academic medical center: It’s about the region,” said David X. Cifu, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who also serves as senior traumatic brain injury specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and principal investigator for the Long-term Impact of Military-relevant Brain Injury Consortium. “This community model gives us the opportunity to reach even more patients, working together with our partners to support patients, increase access and grow our knowledge to serve individuals with spinal cord injury across the country.”

The clinical research consortium allows teams across all three entities to provide the highest level of comprehensive specialty services, from the point of injury through rehabilitation and re-entry into community life.

“As the research center of one of the earliest Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation departments in the U.S., we at CERSE have been conducting innovative research in brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation care, pain management and rehabilitation care delivery since our founding. This spinal cord injury designation, combined with our department’s existing TBI designation, is evidence of that commitment,” said Ronald Seel, Ph.D., professor and executive director of CERSE at VCU. “The innovations we continue to make in clinical care provides individuals with spinal cord injury the highest function level and quality of life possible.”

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