The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 19, 2001
March 19, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 26


14-Year-Old Cody Unser, of Racing Family, Sparks a National Network

By Marjorie Centofanti
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A Johns Hopkins neurologist, inspired by the plight of a young patient, has established a nationwide consortium of Centers of Excellence for research and treatment of the often-paralytic neurological disease transverse myelitis.

When Cody Unser visited Hopkins' Transverse Myelitis Center two years ago, following a sudden onset of complete lower-body paralysis, she formed a fast friendship with Douglas Kerr, an assistant professor of neurology, who directs the center. Unser, daughter of champion racer Al Unser Jr., was determined to advance research on the poorly understood disease. With a $60,000 check from NASCAR Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, the young woman founded the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, now a lightning rod for TM research donations.

Hopkins has been the country's sole center for the disease, but, says Kerr, finding a therapy would progress more quickly with a formal organization of neurologists and patients worldwide. Spurred on by Unser and the First Step Foundation's $20,000 donation, Kerr has organized an international consortium of research hospitals.

The new centers, so far, include Washington University in St. Louis, the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, the University of Washington, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the University of New Mexico and Phoenix's Barrow Neurological Institute. One in the Netherlands will soon join.

Each center will collect data on patients' tissues, disease history and treatment, as well as epidemiological information, to pool in an international database. A yearly symposium--the first to be held in July in Baltimore--will help members share findings.

Transverse myelitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord that causes damage and ongoing disease. While rare, TM can be triggered by common ailments like chicken pox or the flu, by autoimmune reactions to vaccinations or by unknown causes.