Dr. Claire Hulsebosch
Dr. Claire Hulsebosch

Claire Hulsebosch, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy, is the winner of the Reeve-Irvine Research Medal for 2016, along with co-recipients Allan Basbaum and Cliff Woolf.

The medal is given by the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California Irvine to researchers who have made recent critical contributions to promoting repair of the damaged spinal cord, recovery of function, and/or improvement of quality of life for people living with spinal cord injury.

“I am thrilled and delighted that my decades of research have been recognized by the Reeve-Irvine Research Center; but more importantly, many of my discoveries are now used routinely in clinical practice for treatment of chronic neuropathic pain,” she said.

Hulsebosch will receive the medal and cash prize, which are sponsored by the Joan Irvine Smith and the Athalie R. Clarke Foundation, at the University of California San Francisco, where she will give a plenary lecture.

“When I first began research in spinal cord injury, even my neuroscience colleagues told me to give up, that ‘nothing could be done,’” she recalled. “The thinking at the time was that the central nervous system (CNS) was hardwired and did not change after injury, or that the changes only made things worse.”

Hulsebosch’s early studies demonstrated that specific pathways in the CNS will sprout after sustaining an injury. “This is much like the bushes in a garden that one prunes and then the remaining branches sprout vigorously,” she explained. “Thus, the spinal cord and brain have a ‘plastic’ or changeable component in the wiring and in alterations that can occur in the contacts between the nerve cells.”

Understanding the fundamental mechanisms of spinal cord injury (SCI) and how these mechanisms change over time have improved how we treat patients with SCI, thanks in large part due to the Reeve Foundation, which increased the availability to fund such innovative research, she said.

Hulsebosch received her graduate degree in zoology and neuroscience from The University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The University of Texas Medical Branch Marine Biomedical Institute, joining the spinal cord research group. She joined the medical school faculty in 2013 as an adjunct professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. Previously she served on the UTMB faculty for 35 years.

Hulsebosch’s research efforts are focused on both acute and chronic interventions for the recovery of function after spinal cord injury, and more recently traumatic brain injury, with over 360 peer-reviewed articles and abstracts. She spearheaded Mission Connect, bringing together The Institute of Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR) Foundation, McGovern Medical School, Baylor, and UTMB in 1997. Currently, she is project director of the spinal cord injury consortium of Mission Connect and serves on the scientific advisory board of several spinal cord injury foundations and journals.

“The change in the dogma that ‘nothing can be done’ has altered how the clinical scientists think about treatment strategies, both immediately after injury and weeks to years later. This is due in large part to the heroic measures of Christopher Reeve – who really was a “super” man,” she said. “One of the fastest growing areas in SCI recovery is active physical rehabilitation. Basically, it is possible to ‘retrain the brain’ and the spinal cord through aggressive physical therapy. Our partnership with TIRR has improved the lives of many people with brain and SCI.”