Investing in a Cure for Spinal Cord Injury

 5 min read

California Man Reaches Across Country to Support Jefferson Research

In 1981, a young, athletic Bob Yant jumped into the Pacific Ocean as he had done hundreds of times before. But this time was different. This time the Newport Beach, California, man struck his head on a sandbar, fracturing his cervical spine at C-5, leaving him a quadriplegic.

One of his first questions he asked his doctors at the hospital following the accident was: “What’s going on in spinal cord injury research right now?”

Yant, now 70, has spent the last 40 years continually asking that question and supporting scientists who are working toward finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

One of those scientists is Angelo Lepore, PhD, Professor, Department of Neuroscience, Vickie and Jack Farber Institute for Neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University. Yant recently made a $600,000 gift to support Lepore’s Spinal Cord Repair Laboratory, which studies the biological causes of chronic neuropathic pain and loss of breathing function that both frequently occur in those who have suffered a spinal cord injury.

The goal of Lepore’s team is to promote regeneration of the damaged nervous system after injury using innovative therapeutic strategies such as stem cell transplantation and gene therapy.

“Before I met Dr. Lepore, I was worried that I was going to not see a cure for spinal cord injury in my lifetime,” Yant says, adding that Lepore’s research gives him hope, as his lab has made a number of exciting discoveries.

“We have developed novel therapies to promote extensive nervous system regeneration in laboratory models of spinal cord injury, which has resulted in recovery of lost breathing function and prevention of chronic pain,” Lepore says.

The cross-country connection between Yant and Lepore arose out of a simple invitation to a baseball game on July 4, 2021. The San Francisco Giants fan was asked to attend a Los Angeles Dodgers game with a friend who happened to be a journalist specializing in reporting on spinal cord research.

“I bent his ear about spinal cord research the whole time,” Yant remembers. “The next day, I woke up and he had sent me an article by Angelo Lepore.”

In the article, Lepore described a novel regenerative therapy for stimulating a modest amount of respiratory function recovery in a model of spinal cord injury; he went on to hypothesize that encouraging the formation of synaptic connections between regenerating nerve cells could further improve this recovery by transplanting a certain type of cell called an astrocyte to the damaged spinal cord. However, much more research was needed to determine if the hypothesis would produce the desired results.

It was research Yant saw as worthy of investing in, so he picked up the phone, called Lepore, and said: “Hey, I’m ready to give you $600,000.”

“It was out of the blue—he was pretty stunned,” Yant says.

Yant, who uses a wheelchair, can move his arms, but not his wrists or fingers. He requires assistance with every aspect of personal care, which inspired him to establish a medical manufacturing company that makes urinary catheters, something more than a million people with spinal cord injuries in the U.S. use every day. Although he graduated from the University of California – Berkeley with a degree in sociology, he was able to design a better catheter because he has been personally dependent on them for so long.

The company donated 10 percent of its net income to researchers working on developing a cure for spinal cord injury; over the course of 11 years, it gave about $5 million to neuroscientists. He recently sold the company, and is now concentrating all of his time and efforts to philanthropy.

Yant’s dedication to finding financial support for spinal cord injury research started within six months of his accident when he began as a volunteer fundraiser.

Over the past four decades he has raised about $20 million, served on the board of directors of the American Paralysis Association (now the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation), attended hundreds of scientific conferences, and met with about 300 scientists that are working in spinal cord injury research.

He also established a biotechnology company to back the research of a neuromolecular biologist conducting spinal cord research.

“I figured the only way we’re going to get out of this situation is to engage the neuroscientists and develop a cure,” he says, noting that at the time of his injury there weren’t many scientists studying the field.

“The only real research was in the field of stimulating muscles to move using wires... then there was more research centered on exoskeletons that helped people stand up and walk…” he says. “But none of that interests me. I’m interested in a biological cure—in other words, putting the spinal cord back the way it was before the injury.”

With the help of his wife, Ann, he has traveled the country to attend science meetings, talk with scientists, and raise money for research. The answer to finding the cure, says Yant, hinges on one thing: funding.

When is there going to be a cure for spinal cord injury? If we don’t fund spinal cord injury research, I can tell you when there’s going to be a cure—never!

Bob Yant

Yant says that private donors are vital to research because they help scientists secure funding from large entities such as the National Institutes of Health and Craig H. Nielson Foundation.

“When a researcher like Lepore wants to apply for a grant from the NIH or other major organizations he needs to show preliminary data from his experiments. Well, where is he going to get the money to do the experiments in the first place?” Yant asks rhetorically.

Lepore agrees, noting that Yant’s gift will play a critical role in taking this promising treatment from the lab to patients.

“The road from discoveries made in the laboratory to development of therapies for patients is challenging and requires extensive financial support,” Lepore says. “The generosity of philanthropic donors such as Bob Yant is critical to our ability to successfully navigate this difficult path and will ultimately result in a cure for individuals affected by spinal cord injury.”

Yant says that people always ask him: “When is there going to be a cure for spinal cord injury?” He answers that he doesn’t have a crystal ball, but says: “If we don’t fund spinal cord injury research, I can tell you when there’s going to be a cure—never!”