Dr. George P. Forrest, chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Albany Medical College in New York, is co-investigator in a study of electrical stimulation that helps patients stand up - and then take steps with a walker.
Somewhat like a remote garage door opener, the technique involves surgically implanting a transmitter in the patient's abdomen, then connecting wires from a receiver to muscles in the patient's legs, buttocks and back. When the patient wants to get out of his wheelchair, Forrest said, he presses a button on the transmitter, which sends a signal to the receiver:
"That turns on the circuit, and when all of the muscles are stimulated, the patient is able to stand up."
The problem, he said, is that when able-bodied people walk, all the muscle groups don't contract at once - they alternately contract and then relax.
"So the patients can't really walk one leg in front of the other the same way you or I do," he said. "What I'm hoping is, with the improvements in the computer technology, they'll be able to have much more sophisticated circuits that can stimulate more muscles" and turn them on and off sequentially.
Many experts say that the most promising therapy for spinal injury patients is likely to be a combination of techniques.
"We don't know quite what that cocktail is going to look like yet," said Dr. Elliot J. Roth, medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
In McDonald's view, embryonic stem cells, which have the capacity to turn into any type of cell in the body, including nerve cells, are a key to spinal injury research. Even if they don't produce a direct therapy, he said, they are an essential "scientific tool of discovery" that could be used to test other therapies.
For some, like 50-year-old Bobby Williams, Reeve's death had a personal meaning. Williams heard the news when he turned on his radio yesterday before leaving his Cockeysville home for his job as a concierge at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. A paraplegic since a snow-laden aluminum awning fell on his back almost nine years ago, Williams uses a wheelchair and a car with hand controls.
Although he works out several times a week, Williams has regained little function in his legs. He has always followed news of Reeve's work on behalf of spinal-cord injury victims.
"He was a Superman in my eyes," Williams said. "He just turned a personal tragedy into a public crusade. ... He's going to be greatly missed."