By Joni Moths Mueller
Bryon Riesch turned tragedy into opportunity
To get a true fix on fright think about a freshman college student careening across a slippery slide then coming to a stop and instantly guessing that the worst had happened.
His brain took logical leaps. He was a born competitor and he was competing. He’d run, jumped, splayed his arms out to gain an aerodynamic edge, landed and bumped his chin — bumped it hard — against the ground. The bump forced his neck backward and suddenly all feeling running from his arms and legs ceased. He felt what he later called a “ring of fire” erupt and circle his chest below the nipple line. He asked friends standing nearby to call 911. They held the phone to his ear so that he could explain to emergency responders exactly what he was feeling. The paramedics came quickly, immobilized him and transported him to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, where five days later doctors operated on his C5 spinal cord injury.
“They said the surgery went great but told me I would never walk again,” says Bryon Riesch, Bus Ad ’01.
He spent 25 days in the ICU. He remembers this best, and this is important because it’s where his path takes a turn. “My dad asked me, ‘Bryon, do you still want to live? Do you think you can still be productive, have a good life?’”
Riesch admits it wasn’t easy hearing his father ask. “I thought about it and said yes.”
His dad then told Bryon to reach out his hand, wherever he goes and to whomever he meets, and make contact, and, “I bet you’ll be amazed by what you get back.”
Riesch has lived that practice ever since that day in 1998. “In the position I’m in, you can’t be afraid to ask for help,” he says. “You’re not going to get better, do anything, especially with a tragedy such as mine, without help from someone else. I’ve tried to live that, to ask for help and give help whenever I can.”
Riesch greeted me at the door of R&R Insurance Services in Waukesha, Wis., a family-owned company where he has worked for the past 10 years. He raised his hand toward me and we touched. Later I learned the symbolism of that contact.
I wanted to talk to Riesch about one way he is making good on his promise to give back. Marquette has been a beneficiary.
Of course it took some time. He had a lot to work through in adapting to living in a wheelchair, to needing assistance to perform many tasks, such as getting into bed at night, but also more personal passages, and to getting back to Marquette to finish his degree, which he began working toward just four months after his accident.
Riesch’s hometown community held a fundraiser back then to help defray some of the astronomic costs of his medical care. One year later the fundraiser committed the dollars to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. In 2001 the Riesch family decided to keep the funds local and started the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation.
The foundation has grossed a little more than $4 million in 15 years, which has been committed almost entirely to funding spinal cord research at research institutions, including Marquette and the Medical College of Wisconsin, and charitable grants and scholarships for people coping with paralysis.
The foundation makes possible what researchers worldwide dream about. It provides seed funds to make it possible for researchers to test new ideas. To people who know nothing about funded research, that may sound inconsequential. Why would a researcher be interested in small grants, such as those awarded by the Bryon Riesch fund, when the National Institutes of Health have the wherewithal to commit millions to medical research?
The answer is a bit like the chicken and egg analogy, explains Dr. Murray Blackmore, assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Health Sciences. Research is costly. It can take hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to complete a research project. But to even catch the eye of the top funding agencies — the NIH, Department of Defense and Nielsen Fund are good examples — the research must have preliminary data to show that the research described in a funding application is likely to succeed.
How do you compile preliminary data? That’s where the Bryon Riesch fund comes in.
Blackmore’s lab illustrates perfectly the crucial intersection of seed funding and research.
Blackmore’s interest in spinal cord research has always been fueled in part from experiencing the trauma of this devastating injury firsthand, after his mother suffered a C5 injury to her spinal cord when Blackmore was 13-years-old. He came to Marquette in 2011, lured by the collegial culture and support in the College of Health Sciences for his research into traumatic spinal cord injury and paralysis.
For the past five years Blackmore’s research team has been working, challenging hypotheses, testing new theories, studying data, coming up with ideas, hoping to find a path forward.
The Bryon Riesch fund has awarded $190,000 to Blackmore’s lab since 2013 in four small grants that helped researchers push a novel idea onward or make a hard stop. The first two grants, awarded in 2013 and 2014, allowed researchers to test using gene therapy to coax adult neurons into regenerating axons and restarting communication between the brain and the injured spinal cord. Embryonic neurons have the ability to regrow axons. Blackmore hoped to artificially induce the process in adult neurons.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Blackmore says, and explains that the first two grants funded projects that didn’t pan out. “That’s the nature of seed funding. Not everything is going to work. It helps a lot that we did succeed with the third grant.”
The most recent and exciting development in the lab is focused on genetically manipulating injured neurons, with a focus on cellular pathways that have been linked to cancer. “Cancer is growth where you don’t want it; spinal cord injury is a failure of growth where you do want it,” Blackmore explains. “So maybe the same genes that cause inappropriate growth in one condition can be tweaked so that they cause appropriate growth in another condition.”
This research is possible because of seed funding. “If you can get $50,000 to try something — even if it’s crazy like cancer genes or something you’ve never done before — the NIH will laugh you out of the room, but the Bryon Riesch fund will say that’s a good idea, why don’t you try it.
“It’s already paid off,” Blackmore adds, clearly excited by the direction the research is taking. “The Bryon Riesch fund provided seed funding for the cancer idea, which we turned into a $480,000 federal grant. And I’m hoping lightening will strike twice because I’m very excited about a new project using stem cells, and we will definitely aggressively try to convert that seed project into continued funding.”
Tragedy put Riesch in the position of lending his name to a foundation to support spinal cord research; it also admittedly brought him and Blackmore together. Riesch says he is particularly happy to support someone at Marquette who is so committed to the fight. “A lot of our funding has led to millions and millions of dollars in additional funding,” he says. “Hopefully with Murray, we’ll see, you never know when you’ll get returns. … It’s kind of like people reaching back to you, just like my dad said. I reached out to Marquette, to Dr. Blackmore, and I’ve been amazed at what I got back.”
Share your stories of hope at magazine.marquette.edu/share.
An excellent five-part series on Blackmore’s work that ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014, “Murray’s Problem,” shared the science, its starts, stops and stutters with exacting, insightful detail. Read it at jsonline.com/murraysproblem.