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Miranda Liu profiles Wise Young ’68, one of two recipients of our inaugural Alumni Impact Award in 2022. A pioneering medical professional, Wise has brought hope to a generation of spinal cord injury patients.
Founding Director of the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Dr Wise Young ’68 was awarded the ASIJ Alumni Impact Award last spring for his lifetime body of medical research. His pioneering work on the treatment of spinal cord injuries and regenerative medicine has impacted the lives of countless people and advanced the science of such treatments. The recipient of numerous plaudits for his work, Wise was named “America’s Best” in the field of spinal cord injury research by TIME magazine in 2001.
After graduating from Stanford in 1977, Wise attended New York University, which had what was regarded as the top neurosurgery program in the country at Bellevue Hospital. “I was in my second year as a resident when I took care of someone with a spinal cord injury. At that time, there was nothing you could do for spinal cord injury. I was blown away by that,” Wise told The Ambassador in 1998. “And that’s what I had to tell the family of this 17-year-old boy who broke his neck in a wrestling accident during a match. I was on the wrestling team at ASIJ, so it struck close to home. I thought, ‘This guy just bruised his spinal cord and he’s going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. There must be something I can do.’ The worst feeling that one can have as a doctor is to feel helpless.” That experience prompted Wise to submit a grant proposal, the funding of which began his research in 1979.
Incredibly, the first therapy that Wise tried in the laboratory ended up proving to be effective. A number of scientists had described a progression of pathological changes in the spinal cord: at 30 minutes after injury, the injured area typically appeared relatively undamaged. However, over four to six hours, the spinal cord rapidly deteriorated, turning into a bloody soup in the middle. “I was curious as to how and why this occurred,” Wise told us in 1998. “Therefore I stuck electrodes into the spinal cord to measure blood flow and extracellular ions and used methylprednisolone (MP) to see its effect.” High dose MP remarkably prevented the fall in blood flow. “I realized that the attitude toward spinal cord injury was so pessimistic that nobody would be willing to accept my findings. The only way to prove it was to pull together a consortium to test it, rigorously. Before this could be done I had to show it was safe.” In 1981, Wise gave the therapy to 30 people with spinal cord injuries—17 of whom walked out of the hospital. From there, Wise was able to move to clinical trials and begin the long journey of getting this new approach to treating spinal cord injuries accepted by the medical community—something that took decades of perseverance to achieve.
But after years of publications and talks and the establishment of multiple foundations and symposia, Wise finally helped to bring about what he described as “a revolution in neuroscience.” When just a decade ago, the majority of neuroscientists Wise interacted with were adamant that regeneration of the spinal cord was impossible, by 1998, that had made a 180-degree turnaround. “Most scientists who are knowledgeable about the field believe that effective regenerative therapies are not only possible but can be achieved within a relatively short time,” he told The Ambassador at the time.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Wise’s work is that the driving factor behind his research was always to bring hope to patients with spinal cord injuries. He shared that he felt frustrated and without a good answer for years when asked with skepticism if he wasn’t “raising false hope” by journalists throughout his career, before it finally came to him: “While hope is painful, no hope is devastating.” Although not a possibility at the time, Wise met the 17-year-old patient during his residency, building a future where “restoring sufficient function to people so that the injury no longer prevents them from doing the things they want to do,” is something he felt strongly about. In fact, when he was interviewed on the Today Show in 1995 regarding prominent actor Christopher Reeve’s spinal cord injury, Wise emphasized the importance of facing serious cases such as Christopher’s with a positive mindset, stating, “This is exactly the kind of thing that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everybody gives up hope, nothing will happen and he will indeed remain the way he is.”
Almost three decades later, Wise is still working hard to bring hope to patients with spinal cord injuries and their families. The spinal cord injury website he founded in 2001, CareCure.net, contains both up-to-date news on treatments for spinal cord injury and a forum to allow patients and their families to share resources and exchange information about clinical trials, services, doctors, and clinics. From 2003 to 2018, Wise established and led the China Spinal Cord Injury Network to determine efficacy of lithium and umbilical cord blood mononuclear cell therapies of people with chronic complete spinal cord injuries in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan with positive results in multiple rounds of clinical trials. Further clinical trials in the United States were put on pause for COVID, but got back underway again in mid-2021.
The human emotion behind Wise’s work was a motivating factor for those who nominated him. Mara Purl ’68 noted that “his extraordinary contribution to the field of medical research and his dedication to helping those with spinal cord injury to walk again” moved her to submit him for consideration for the award. Marty Honda ’68, who remembers Wise as a “very creative guy” ever since their time in high school, agreed, sharing that he nominated Wise because of his outstanding research that brought new hope for patients.
The same held true for the members of the selection committee, made up of ASIJ alumni, faculty, staff, and student representatives. Current faculty member Susan Islascox shared that she was inspired by Wise’s dedication to research and advancement in regenerative medicine and moved at the opportunities not previously possible that he is providing in the lives of those with spinal cord injuries. Fellow committee member Ellie Reidenbach ’22 found the story of Wise’s work moving and voted for him “because he brings hope to people worldwide who lost their mobility through spinal cord injuries.” She added that she was “inspired by how he dedicates his life to contributing to research that will help millions of people. Additionally, I think he is a great role model for all the STEM students at ASIJ who started science research to make a positive impact on the world.”
Alumni Council Award Subcommittee Co-Chair Gary Yamada ’00’s comment really sums up what a meaningful impact Wise has made in his field, sharing, “Wise’s accomplishments speak for themselves. His treatments have improved the quality of life for so many people.”
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.