Interview with Wings for Life

About 150.00 to 250.000 new spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur each year, primarily caused by road and sport accidents or by a fall. SCI can lead to several different health problems like loss of sensations and paralysis. The Austrian foundation Wings for Life is determined to find a treatment that will help victims of SCI to regain their mobility. The not-for-profit organization was launched in 2004 by two-time motocross world champion Heinz Kinigadner and co-founder of the energy drink company Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz. Under the leadership of Anita Gerhardter, Wings for Life has funded 211 SCI projects in 19 countries. The organization was generous to answer some of my questions about its work and projects.

RsL: What are some major lessons Wings for Life has learned in the last 15 years regarding the support of spinal cord injury research? What experiences have you gained?

WfL: Medical research is unfortunately a very complex and a not linear process. It needs lots of effort and patience. It is more about finding little components of a huge mosaic for a profound understanding.

Considering that spinal cord research is a pretty young research discipline we have already reached significant milestones. Due to different of our funded research projects we have nowadays a much better understanding of biological reactions after a spinal cord injury. A profound understanding gives us the possibility to think about developing therapies.

RsL: How many grant seekers are contacting you per year and how many of them are getting approved?

WfL: Each year, we receive up to 250 grant applications from scientists from institutions and universities across the globe. The applications then need to pass a strict selection process. This year, we are able to fund 63 cutting-edge research projects.

RsL: Can you describe how the Accelerated Translational Program (ATP) works? Why is such a program even needed?

WfL: We’ve launched the ATP to “translate” more medical discoveries into actual therapeutic treatments for patients. It is needed as there are so many hurdles at the step from basic research to clinical application. This is not only in our case, but in research in general. The ATP supports the scientists to overcome these hurdles with a combination of money, a network of experts from the different fields and the necessary know-how.

RsL: Can you give us an example of a project that has been granted with the ATP?

WfL: One of our ATP studies, STIMO, received recently a great deal of publicity in the press. STIMO is an innovative rehabilitation program. It combines two different treatments: Epidural electrical stimulation, the application of electrical current to the spinal cord, and robot-assisted walking training. The study is still going on, and the final results will be known within 1-2 years. However, early results are very encouraging. So far, three participants have completed the study and all of them saw their functions improve significantly.

RsL: What events (art, sport, …) are you planning the coming years?

WfL: On top of our agenda is – of course – the Wings for Life World Run. It’s our biggest annual fundraising event where hundreds of thousand people all across the globe run for our cause. It’s huge fun and 100 percent of the entry fees go to spinal cord research.

RsL: One of Red Bull’s subsidiary companies is the Terra Mater Factual Studio. Do you have any plans to co-produce TV-shows or movies with them? I know it may sound far-fetched but you should seriously consider it. Think about James Cameron’s science fiction film Avatar, whose protagonist is a paraplegic. The movie earned more than 2.7 billion dollars at the box office. Now imagine Wings for Life and Terra Mater would have produced the movie. The profit could have been used to fund more spinal cord research.

WfL: In fact, we’re very happy that the Red Bull Media House recently produced an inspiring film Any One of Us. It features the professional mountain biker Paul Basagoitia and the candid journey to beat his devastating spinal cord injury. It has been aired already on the first film festivals and will be available to the general audience hopefully end of this year. The movie is dedicated to Wings for Life and we’ll receive proceeds.  

RsL: If you could change or improve anything about the philanthropic sector (in Austria or worldwide), what would it be?

WfL: Traditionally, philanthropy is not as deeply rooted in our culture as it is in the United Kingdom or the U.S. for example. But we’d say that the situation is quite good and there are so many people being generous and doing something for humanity. Especially at Wings for Life we are very grateful that we receive such a great support. The more people support us the sooner we should reach our goal of finding a cure for spinal cord injury.

Thanks to the Wings for Life – Team for answering my questions!

For more information:

Wings for Life: Website

Wings for Life World Run: Website

Stimulation Movement Overground (STIMO): Website

Any One of Us: Website