Dr. Cathy Craven,
University Health Network, Toronto
Dr. Cathy Craven focuses on research that improves the care for individuals living with spinal cord injury. She recently received funding from the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation and partner the Rick Hansen Institute for the “Development of the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Translational Continuum Team” (featured in NeuroMatters, Spring 2017).
What prompted your interest and obvious commitment to research in the area of spinal cord injury and rehabilitation?
Prior to medical school, I completed a degree in kinesiology my mentor at the time recommended I use my knuckle dragging skills to referee wheelchair basketball in my lunch hour. It was an amazing experience to work with people who had spinal cord injury, watching how motivated and determined they were to live life to the fullest inspired me to choose rehab medicine in medical school. Understanding the range of needs of these patients, I became determined to develop a broad toolbox of rehabilitation solutions.
You have received several grants from ONF, and REPAR (and others) over the past several years. What do you consider to be the most important “break through” in your work to-date?
I think I’ve been good at pulling people together to work towards a common goal. Many of the grant applications were developed by diverse groups of people who bring unique perspectives. Most of my work has been looking at the medical and health consequences of various health conditions following SCI.
One of the big breakthrough moments from my perspective, was publication of “Spinal Cord Injury: A Manifesto for Change” in 2014. The Manifesto offers a specific call to action to healthcare providers, patients and stakeholders to focus on reducing the health consequences and mortality related to heart disease, fractures and pressure sores. In Ontario, we have the expertise in heart disease, osteoporosis and wound care but not specific to persons living with SCI. The Manifesto provided details and statistics on the morbidity and mortality rates for SCI patients who experience these health conditions. Much of what I have initiated in terms of developing new research teams and driving health system transformation in the last few years was in direct response to this “call to action”.
You established the SCI Rehabilitation Translational Continuum Team or ReCon Team earlier this year. What skills and knowledge do you look for when you recruit members to research teams such as ReCon?
I love to work with new people with novel ideas, so for this team I invited individuals who bring considerable expertise from a broad range of fields such as cellular modelling, animal models and basic science. They are all passionate but many are new to SCI, some are experienced in SCI but not with the specific health conditions we are exploring. Some are early in their careers, others bring a depth of experience but few have worked together in past. I’m really trying to follow a novel path to bring novel results.
I have observed that at the big scientific and medical meetings when people come together we may not talk the same language. Through the ReCon team we are hoping to develop a common language Once we can talk the same language, we can work collaboratively to facilitate development of novel rehabilitation solutions For instance, in SCI research, most human subjects are male, but most animal models are female. How do we know that what we learn from animals is transferable to humans? So, one of the approaches we will be exploring is reverse translation – looking at the end and trying to back into the solution.
ReCon has been the most fun thing I’ve done in my career in a long time!
How could the outcome of your current research project improve the lives of those living with SCI?
I think it will help us know what works and what doesn’t in terms of care options. Can we stop doing the things that don’t work? Can we demonstrate that funding therapies with potential to work in humans and animals, should lead to better products at the end of the day? By operating beyond the silos I believe it is possible to establish a better connection between everyone along the SCI care continuum. That kind of imbedded connection will improve care.
Based on your knowledge and understanding of SCI, do you have a message for those who establish policy with respect to the care and treatment of those living with SCI?
Having a spinal cord injury and adapting to it is one challenge. But the ongoing health conditions are very hard on those living with SCI and their caregivers. If we could reduce the incidence of spinal cord injury that would be great; however, for the thousands of people in this province living with SCI and complex chronic health conditions because of their injury, reducing the incidence and severity of these conditions would lead to significant improvements in overall health. The cumulative burden of these conditions wears people down and robs them of their quality of life. It also needs to be easier for people to navigate the health care system when they are ill as it is much more difficult to navigate diagnostic testing from a wheelchair.
I’m very passionate about this field. What I love about individuals living with SCI is they are well-educated and motivated to get better, despite trying circumstances. I am specifically interested in understanding how muscle, bones, and the nervous system interact.
I have a vision and I keep driving towards in my work. Our next big win will be to understand the physiological drivers’ specific to spinal cord injury that will lead to healthcare system reform. .