Small steps in creating hope for spinal cord injury victims
The creator of Red Bull is behind 82 global projects focusing on spinal cord injuries
Seated, Piers White (the Mark Pollack Trust), Richard Donovan (ultrarunner and Irish race director), Colin Jackson (international race director), Anita Gerhardter (chief exexutive, Wings for Life), Dr Jessica Kwok (SCI researcher) and Mark Pollock (Wings for Life ambassador) answer questions from the audience during the Wings for Life World Run Google Hangout in Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Courtesy of Redbullcontentpool.com
The story of how Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz became one of the richest men in Europe is a remarkable tale of an opportunity seized.
As a travelling salesman for Unilever, Mateschitz came across a Thai concoction called Krating Daeng made with sugar, caffeine and taurine.
Together with Thai businessman Chaleo Yoovidhya, he carbonated the substance and introduced Red Bull to the world 30 years ago.
Red Bull has made Mateschitz an enormously wealthy man. Forbes estimated his wealth at $8.1 billion (€5.9 billion) last year. Red Bull has become a multimedia company and an unstoppable juggernaut.
Away from Red Bull, Mateschitz’s big preoccupation is to fund research into spinal cord injuries, an interest that arises out of his friendship with motocross rider Heinz Kinigadner.
Kinigadner’s 23-year-old son, Hannes, became a paraplegic after suffering a severe injury in 2003, and his brother Hans, also a motocross athlete, has been bound to a wheelchair since 1984.
Mateschitz, through his Red Bull Wings For Life Foundation, has financed research into spinal cord injuries for years and funds 82 projects around the globe.
Despite his millions, spinal cord research remains underfunded though its catastrophic impact affects at least 10,000 individuals in Europe every year, many of them in the prime of their lives.
Painfully slow progress
Progress in helping people with spinal injuries to walk again has been painfully slow. Nevertheless, Dr Jessica Kwok, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, says there is hope.
“One of the earliest drugs that we can see in dealing with the central nervous system disease will be for spinal cord injuries,” she says. “There are things out there we can try but it is very complicated and is a multifactorial illness.
“At the same time, we are starting to get close to the stage where we have treatments that will show an improvement.”
The great hope for spinal cord injury victims is stem cell research. This was championed by the former Superman actor Christopher Reeve when he was alive.
Reeve was thrown from a horse in 1995 and ended up a quadriplegic. He devoted the rest of his life to lobbying on behalf of people like himself until his death in 2004.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation have been tireless advocates for spinal cord injury victims.
The medical profession once regarded the prognosis for severe spinal cord injury patients as hopeless. Once severely damaged, the cells in the spinal cord and brain could not regenerate or be replaced, but the advent of stem cell treatments has given new hope to such patients.