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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

UC Denver Magazine

Stephen Davies

Super researcher owes one to Superman

Stephen Davies
Stephen Davies

Stephen Davies’ research into repairing spinal cord injuries comes too late for Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman and who died in 2004 after being paralyzed in a horseback riding accident. But the answer to Reeve’s prayers may come soon.

"Christopher Reeve was told, ‘In five years we’ll have it,’" says Davies. "Then he was told, ‘In five more years.’ I truly believe within the next five years, we will have developed effective therapies. I can’t promise complete recovery, but perhaps the major recovery of function."

Davies, a School of Medicine researcher, has found a way to restore near-normal mobility to rats with severe spinal cord injuries. He does it by injecting their injured spines with precisely cured stem cells and a human molecule that can prevent scarring.

Working off two massive computer screens, Davies calls up images showing nerve axons growing across the sites of spinal cord injuries in rats. The axons progress along the animal spines and connect with undamaged nerve circuits.

On a test course to measure mobility in spine-injured rats, the animals "were walking almost normally after a month," Davies says.

The Scottish-born, British-raised scientist came to the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora from the Baylor University School of Medicine. He wanted to take advantage of some of the finest research facilities in the country and the campus’ reputation for collegiality among top-flight researchers.


 Stephen Davies video:


His latest breakthrough is a method of manipulating stem cell precursors before they are transplanted into rats. This ensures the stem cells turn into nerve cells that repair injured spinal cords quickly and without chronic, debilitating "neuropathic pain."

For this to work in a man the size of Christopher Reeve, the nerves would have to grow a couple of feet, Davies admits. Furthermore, the science remains untested in humans. But the potential is such that Davies earned the 2006 Erica Nader Research Award from the American Spinal Injury Association.

Davies’ stem cell work is representative of the stem cell therapies being perfected at the School of Medicine. The medical school’s professors are making breakthroughs in potential treatments for other conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Davies’ research solidifies a sad and ironic connection that still lingers between a super scholar and Superman.

"The Christopher Reeve Foundation gave us money to do research," Davies says, looking toward the inspiring mountain view of his ninth floor office at the Anschutz Medical Campus. The $150,000 grant got Davies’ research started, and led to a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

In a very real way, Christopher Reeve allowed Stephen Davies to reach a tantalizing threshold that could end the suffering and possibly save the lives of others suffering from spinal cord injuries. When he succeeds, a super scholar will have paid homage to Superman.

Read more about Stephen Davies' stem cell research