ISCoS 2020:Virtual Highlights

Kristine Hendry, CEO, shares some of her highlights from the 59th International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) Annual Scientific Meeting, held last month.


Last month I attended the 59th International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS) Annual Scientific Meeting. While originally planned to be in Tokyo to coincide with the Paralympic Games, due to COVID-19 it was held as an entirely virtual conference, with conference organisers doing an amazing job to pivot to an online platform in only a few months.

The ISCoS conference brings together an international field of interdisciplinary researchers, clinicians, and people with lived experience of spinal cord injury (SCI), who are involved in prevention, research, management and rehabilitation of SCI. Over 500 delegates from over 55 countries attended the virtual conference this year. Of these, 30 were recipients of SRI Collaboration Grants and we look forward to sharing their conference experiences with you in future newsletters. The conference program included more than 180 virtual posters and 75 presentations, including keynote lectures, instructional courses, and workshops on cutting-edge research and clinical trials. Below are some of my conference highlights.

Dr Natasha Van Zyl, Austin Health, presented her study on nerve transfer surgery for restoration of upper limb function in tetraplegia (quadriplegia). Upper limb paralysis impairs, amongst many things, the ability to feed oneself, hold a drink, write, and propel a wheelchair. The surgery involves transferring working nerves from one part of the body, above the level of spinal cord injury, into the arm(s). Results from Dr Van Zyl’s study show that nerve transfer surgery is a safe and effective technique that improves function, such as hand opening, grasp, pinch and elbow extension.

The Wings for Life lecture was presented by Professor Michael Kilgard, University of Texas at Dallas. Professor Kilgard spoke about his work using vagus nerve stimulation to impact neural plasticity (the ability of the nervous system to change) and enhance motor recovery in neurological disorders, including SCI. Precisely timed stimulation of the vagus nerve, using a small stimulation device implanted under the collarbone, paired with rehabilitative training exercises has been shown to enhance neural plasticity and upper limb functional recovery, and a trial is currently underway to study this in stroke patients. Professor Kilgard is now planning a safety trial of a next-generation vagus nerve stimulation device in people with SCI, expected to commence in early 2021.

The inaugural Anthony DiMarco lecture was delivered by Professor David Berlowitz, University of Melbourne. We were thrilled that David, a Director of the Spinal Research Institute, was invited to present this inaugural lecture. Professor Berlowitz spoke about his research into sleep disordered breathing after cervical spinal cord injury. During his PhD, he was the first to show that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a direct consequence of quadriplegia. Professor Berlowitz discussed the subsequent research that he has undertaken to investigate the potential causes of OSA following SCI, and the large-scale clinical trial that he led to test the effectiveness of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) to treat OSA in people with quadriplegia. CPAP was found to reduce daytime sleepiness and improve quality of life, and it is vitally important that further translatable treatment models are developed to improve OSA diagnosis and care.

On the final day of the conference I joined the workshop ‘Perspectives on patient-partnered research’, co-presented by John Chernesky, Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, Dr Femke Hoekstra, University of British Columbia, Professor Andrei Krassioukov, University of British Columbia, and Rob Wudlick, University of Minnesota. The workshop looked at patient-partnered research, where patients (also referred to as consumers) are engaged as equal partners in research co-design and co-delivery. Presenters covered topics including: what funders are looking for to demonstrate effective and meaningful patient engagement; evidence of the benefits of patient-partnered research; and strategies for meaningful patient engagement. Dr Hoekstra spoke about her work helping to co-develop the first Integrated Knowledge Translation guiding principles for conducting and disseminating research in partnership with the SCI community, and we look forward to the imminent publication of the guiding principles.

The ‘Perspectives on patient-partnered research’ workshop was an important learning opportunity for the SRI as we continue developing our Consumer Engagement Program. We were very pleased to have our poster abstract accepted for the conference, which our Collaborations Program Manager, Emma Peleg, presented. The poster – ‘Driving consumer engagement in the spinal cord injury research process: A review of the available resources’ – presented the outcomes of a review of the large volume of guidance tools,  fact sheets and training videos focused broadly on consumer engagement in healthcare and medical research, and their relevance to the SCI research community. We found that many tools are too complex for everyday usage, highlighting the need for concise consumer guidelines for all stakeholders in the SCI clinical research field.

Lastly, I would like to congratulate Dr Sintip Pattanakuhar, Chiang Mai University, one of our 2020 Collaboration Grant recipients, who was recognised with an Early Career Scholar Award for his poster ‘The influencing factors of sleep problems in people with spinal cord injury: Analysis of the data from the International Spinal Cord Injury (InSCI) Community Survey in Thailand’.

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