Four researchers were honored last week for innovations that could bring new hope to victims of cancer and paralysis.
Intellectual Property Owners Inc. presented its Inventor of the Year award to three scientists from Cetus Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., for developing a genetically engineered protein being used in experimental treatment of cancer patients. The lobbying organization for holders of patents, copyrights and trademarks also named as one of two Distinguished Inventors Jerrold S. Petrofsky of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, for his work on electrical stimulation of paralyzed muscles.
The story of the research conducted by the three Cetus Corp. scientists -- David F. Mark, Leo S. Lin and Shi-Da Yu Lu -- unfolded in reprints of highly technical scientific papers, in Mark's informative briefing Thursday morning and in the accompanying slides featuring colorful diagrams showing how scientists are rearranging the building blocks of life.
The story of the research conducted by Petrofsky -- who heads Wright State's National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering -- unfolded in a far more dramatic fashion: After Petrofsky outlined his work, research assistant Jennifer Smith, who was paralyzed from the chest down when she was shot while training for a marathon, walked into the room using a walker by triggering a transistor-radio-sized device that electrically stimulated her paralyzed muscles so that first one leg and then the other swung forward.
In his presentation, Mark explained that all living organisms are made up of cells, and the cells contain threadlike structures called chromosomes, which direct cell growth and other functions through genes. Genes, in turn, are made up of units called codons, each of which is an instruction for a portion of a protein called an amino acid.
Mark said that what the Cetus researchers have done is to modify a codon so it produces a modified protein. In this case, they have modified a protein called Interleukin 2, improving its purity and stability. Interleukin 2 causes a type of white blood cell called a T cell to multiply and form a cancer-killing LAK cell.
The National Cancer Institute's chief of surgery, Dr. Steven Rosenberg, has been collaborating with Cetus and treating severely ill cancer patients with modified Interleukin 2. Mark said that Rosenberg obtained at least 50 percent tumor reductions in 11 of 25 patients treated, including one whose widespread cancer disappeared. More than 600 other patients have been treated with modified Interleukin 2 in more than 30 independent clinical trials in hospitals throughout the nation, Mark said.
Petrofsky said he uses special underclothing that conducts electricity -- Smith laughingly calls hers "hot pants" -- to deliver electricity from the computerized control box along a flat cable to the user's muscles. The electricity thus is replacing nerve links severed by a spinal injury or stroke. He extolled the psychological as well as physical benefits of paraplegics and quadriplegics being able to stand, but added that he doesn't consider computer-controlled walking as important as computer-controlled muscle rehabilitation.
He estimated that devices using his technique could reduce rehabilitation costs by 90 percent. Devices he has patented are available commercially. A number of Veterans Administration centers are using some of the rehabilitation devices Petrofsky has developed, and negotiations are under way for the VA to test others.
Petrofsky wryly suggested that he and some other researchers suffer from "tunnel vision," noting that it was a friend who suggested some research he was conducting could help persons suffering paralysis because of a stroke or spinal injury.
Petrofsky's background is in engineering and physiology. When he was studying muscle fatigue at St. Louis University, he decided that using computers to control muscles would enable him to obtain more accurate data.
He began gathering data in 1974, moved to Wright State in 1979 and began experimenting with human volunteers in 1981.
He noted the "sheer fright" that strikes researchers when they begin to work with human volunteers. "It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to move on to human subjects," Petrofsky said.
If the researcher suffers "sheer fright," what about the volunteer?
Smith said she had worked as a nurse and considered herself lucky to have survived her injuries. She also had modeled clothing and "it was just heartbreaking every day to watch my body wither away."
Today she appears undaunted and energetic. Smith said she feels "just as strong and healthy as before my injury." She said she likes using a wheelchair -- "I play a mean game of wheelchair tennis" -- but enjoys the extra mobility of computer-controlled walking:
"I can stand up and change a light bulb. I can talk with someone face to face" instead of having to look up. And, she added, "I can dance in someone's arms."
Smith stressed that she is "not just a guinea pig," but that she works hard in the research program with Petrofsky. She added that they make a perfect research team, because of "his brilliance and my energy."