Issue Date: Nov 21, 2005
By Joseph Blumberg
Rutgers’ Wise Young, world-renowned neuroscientist and spinal cord injury researcher, has been selected by Esquire magazine as one of the “Best and Brightest 2005” and is featured in the December issue of the magazine.
Another of Esquire’s picks for “Best and Brightest 2005” is acclaimed social theorist and author Richard Florida, a 1979 Rutgers College graduate. Florida is the author of two books that explore the role of creativity in the workforce and take issue with America’s xenophobic practices in the global community, “The Rise of the Creative Class” and “The Flight of the Creative Class.” He is the Hirst Professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Esquire’s dual recognition does Rutgers proud,” said President Richard L. McCormick. “Wise Young is an exceptional individual, a teacher par excellence committed to training the next generation of neuroscientists and an untiring advocate for biomedical research to ‘cure the incurable.’ We are pleased to count him as a member of our faculty. We are also pleased to see Rutgers College alum Richard Florida in the Esquire spotlight as well. His positions on the global competition for talent strike a responsive chord with many economists and politicians facing America’s struggle to retain scientific, technological and economic leadership on the world stage.”
Esquire takes five pages to tell Wise Young’s story, tracing his history from mid-century Hong Kong and Japan, through Reed College, Woods Hole and New York University, to his tenure at Rutgers. The article details his accomplishments in medicine and chronicles the evolution of his dedication to curing the injured and afflicted in a manner marked by exceptional sensitivity and humanity.
Before coming to Rutgers, Young was director of neurosurgery research at New York University and part of the team that discovered high-dose methylprednisolone as the first effective therapy for spinal cord injuries. That 1990 work upended conventional wisdom that such injuries led to permanent damage, refocused research and opened new vistas of hope for the quarter-million Americans paralyzed by an injury to the spinal cord.
Today, the dream of therapies that restore function and feeling is becoming a reality, and Young is leading the search for cures. He sees stem cell research as an important pursuit that holds tremendous promise for treating and curing a host of devastating diseases and disorders, including spinal cord injury, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Young is taking a leadership position at home and abroad in gathering support for stem cell research. He has carried his advocacy to patients and politicians in his home state and into the halls of Congress.
At the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers, Young has assembled a team of researchers who collaborate with more than 100 laboratories worldwide in the search for cures. He recently embarked on an initiative to set up a network of more than a dozen spinal-trauma centers in China capable of performing state-of-the-art clinical trials.
“Our goal is to move promising therapies, including those based on stem cells, from the laboratory into clinical trial as quickly as possible,” Young said. “A cure is possible for spinal cord injuries, and collaboration is the means by which that goal can be reached.”
Young’s collaborative spirit fits well with the university’s institutional strategy. Rutgers scientists are engaged in more than 200 scientific collaborations, about 50 of which are international in nature.
Young practices what he calls “compassionate science,” focusing on the needs of patients. He personally involves himself with people who have sustained these injuries and their families, holding regular open-house evenings at the Keck Center, where they are updated on the latest research findings and the newest therapies. “Our science benefits people. At the entrance to the center are photographs that many people have sent to us. We have named this the Wall of Hope,” Young said. “It is an ever-present reminder that our work is grounded in human lives.”
– Joseph Blumberg
A conversation with Wise Young
Focus: Esquire is not the first major publication to recognize you and your work. What is special for you about the Esquire piece?
WY: I am proud that the staff of Esquire chose two people associated with Rutgers to be in their pantheon of the Best and Brightest. I feel honored to be part of such an interesting group of dedicated and passionate people, including Richard Florida, who is a Rutgers alumnus. I believe that their choice reflects the growing role of Rutgers as a source of the best and brightest of the United States.
Focus: The word “collaborative” is frequently mentioned in connection with your work. What is its significance with respect to your laboratory, your work with other institutions in New Jersey, and across the country and world?
WY: When I first proposed the name “W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience” in 1997, there were puzzled looks. Yes, scientists collaborate, but they also compete with each other. Interestingly, the scientific and education world has embraced the term. If you Google for “collaborative,” you will find hundreds of research and educational centers with that word in their names. Over the past eight years, we have tried to take the word to new levels. In addition to building a center designed so that scientists can work together, we have trained more than 350 laboratories to use a standardized spinal cord injury model to accelerate development of therapies. We organized the world’s largest spinal cord injury network in China. We used the interactive Web site CareCure.org to organize a spinal cord injury community so that people and families can join in the research and science.
Focus: Your approach to spinal cord injury research involves personal connection with people who have sustained these injuries and their families. How do these interactions affect the nature and direction of your work in pursuit of a cure?
WY: At the center, we do research for the people. We have excluded them for so long that they think of us as priests of knowledge in an ivory tower. Once this happened, it was only a matter of time before we lost their trust. People don’t trust scientists to be ethical. Many think we are going to clone an army of Hitlers in the secrecy of our labs, that our only concern is knowledge and power, and that we would do anything for money. If our people can’t trust us, how can we do science? We must make personal connections and advocate for them before they will trust us and advocate for us.
Focus: For much of the 20th century, spinal cord injury was regarded as incurable, but early in your career you put hope back into the equation. Are you still hopeful about a cure?
WY: People with spinal cord injury and other desperate conditions are riding on a roller coaster. They open up a newspaper and it proclaims that the cure is here. But when they read the fine print, the cure is five to 10 years away. Early in my career, I realized that I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the cure because it depends on factors that I don’t know and cannot control. What I can do, however, is to commit myself and my science to the cure, to get us on a train with a destination rather than a roller coaster. Yes, I think there has been incredible progress in science. I believe that it is not a matter of if a cure will come but when. How long it takes is a matter of all of us working together, having the resources and being a little lucky. So, I collaborate hard, lobby for resources and hope. The cure will come.
Focus: You have spoken out in support of stem cell research. How do you feel about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research?
WY: Stem cell research has come to symbolize the hope of the people. Politicians understand that when a spouse or child is dying or suffering, nothing else takes precedence. Over 40 million families in the United States have somebody who is severely disabled and who could be helped by stem cell therapies. They are seeing their hope being handed off overseas. They are being asked to accept a policy that implies that their lives are not as important as the lives of frozen eggs that are about to be tossed. This is not politics but inhumanity. I believe it is critical that we study embryonic stem cells because they hold important clues to development and diseases, and are an important source of stem cells for potential therapies. I have no difficulties using embryonic stem cells obtained from frozen blastocysts and believe that it is unethical to throw them away. My own research emphasizes umbilical cord blood stem cells. I am confident that if we allow science to go forward, we will soon be able to make stem cells from any cell of the body. Finally, I am proud of New Jersey’s commitment to stem cell research and hope that we will become the place where stem cell therapies will be developed and made available to millions of people.
This article was published in the Nov 21, 2005 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/1687/