Supporting new innovations for spinal cord injury

Giles Plant, PhD, and Dennis Chan (right)

Eleven years ago, a car accident left Dennis Chan with severe injuries to his spinal cord at the L2 vertebrae and to peripheral nerves. While devastating, Chan chose to look at his situation with hope.

“At that time, I thought the government would fund a lot of spinal cord injury research. Basically, I thought if I kept myself fit, I would wait for the day when the cure would come and I would be all healed and I would be able to walk again,” says Chan, a widower and the father of three children.

After waiting for several years, and watching the majority of federal funding for medical research go on the decline, he realized that was not the case.

“It surprised me that the government does not adequately fund spinal cord injury,” says Chan, a computer scientist with a degree from the Stanford School of Engineering.

He spent a lot of time doing online research—“I don’t have the knowledge of medical science, but I study as much as I can,” he says. He found several academic medical institutions with spinal cord injury research programs, and discovered that they were all looking for funding to make headway in the field.

Several things about Stanford Medicine’s program especially appealed to him: the culture of multidisciplinary collaboration, the new stem cell building, and the innovations in basic science.

“Stanford is devoting a lot of resources to people, equipment, and research facilities. I think it’s going to bear fruit,” he says. “Stanford brings together the world’s brightest minds from different fields to focus on specific problems. You put that kind of brain firepower to concentrate on one area, and you will get results.

“So I thought I would do whatever I can to contribute. I can help attack a narrow area now that is still crucial to the overall progress of spinal cord injury.”

His original gift to the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine led him to learn more about using stem cells in spinal cord injury and the work of Giles Plant, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery. Dr. Plant is the director of basic science for the Stanford Partnership for Spinal Cord Injury and Repair, which brings together researchers and clinicians to collaborate on innovations in spinal cord regeneration and repair to improve quality of life for people paralyzed by spinal cord injury.

“Dr. Plant is a very talented man, and very resourceful,” says Chan. “His work using stem cells to help regenerate nerves—specifically motor neurons for spinal cord injury patients—is the most promising path to restoring function. It is very cutting edge… he’s pushing the envelope.”

As an early-stage investor in start-ups, Chan is already pre-wired to consider concepts and prototypes that
have yet to be proven.

“Obviously, existing technologies cannot solve this problem. So you’ve got to try something new. And that means you’ve got to break new ground, and conduct an early trial of a new technology.

“I am not a reckless risk taker. But I place my trust in people who are extremely good at what they’re doing, and really dedicated. I also look at the team. Is this a very talented team? Very ambitious and hard working? I look at what Dr. Plant is doing as a type of start-up. And I found everything I am looking for,” he says.

Chan meets periodically with Dr. Plant for regular reports and updates on the work, and is greatly encouraged and inspired by recent progress on the effectiveness of transplanted functional corticospinal motor neurons in animals. His hope is that the advances being made will help to attract the additional funding needed to more rapidly move forward Dr. Plant’s research.

“I want to contribute whatever I can to help achieve his goals. I want to understand this as much as I can—to hopefully make an impact,” says Chan.

Chan looks forward to the day when the work advances to a clinical trial. “That would be very exciting,” he says. “If I can help find a cure for spinal cord injury, that would be terrific, not only for me, but for millions of other sufferers.

“And I’m looking at the population in general: we are getting older, and there are a lot of problems facing people who are older. We all try to enjoy life, but we cannot enjoy it if we are hurting.

“I always tell people to support medical research as much as they can, because it’s going to affect each one of us. It’s going to make life better for everyone.”