Spine researchers take
unprecedented sweep of top awards

Four of the nation's most prestigious honors for research and treatment of spinal disorders recently were awarded to faculty of The Emory Spine Center.

"Never has any single section at any institution come up with the four top awards," said Lamar Fleming, chairman of the Department of Orthopaedics at the medical school. "This is especially meaningful because it acknowledges the interrelatedness of Emory's approach to complex spinal disorders, an approach that involves orthopaedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, rehabilitation medicine specialists, psychiatrists and anesthesiologists specializing in pain management."

The Leon Wiltz Award of the North American Spine Society went to Thomas E. Whitesides, professor of orthopaedic surgery, at the society's annual fall meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. The career award recognizes Whitesides' significant lifetime contributions to the body of knowledge concerned with the spine. Known as a back surgeon for whom "no case is too complicated," Whitesides has pioneered a number of unique approaches to spine surgery during more than 30 years at Emory.

The technique he developed in the 1960s to surgically access the spine through the chest rather than the back became an international standard, and his unusual means of accessing the upper cervical spine via the lateral neck, as opposed to the mouth, greatly reduced complication rates. Most recently, Whitesides has researched the negative effect of nicotine use on spinal fusion.

The Harry Farina Award of the North American Spine Society went to William C. Hutton, director of research for the Department of Orthopaedics. This basic science career award acknowledges Hutton's decades-long devotion to spine research at the most basic, molecular and mechanical levels. He has applied his training in biomechanical engineering to a variety of problems involving the function and dysfunction of cervical and spinal vertebrae.

He has used computer simulation to extensively investigate the lifting techniques that least compromise the back, the abnormal movements of patients with back pain and the effect of twisting on the spine. One of his findings, for instance, refuted the popular belief that the back is injured when the body twists while bending forward. He found that the body cannot twist when bent forward because vertebral elements lock up.

The year's Most Outstanding Scientific Paper on Spine Research, according to the North American Spine Society, was authored by Scott Boden, director of The Emory Spine Center and assistant professor of orthopaedics; Michael Marone, an Emory neurosurgery resident; and Peter Moskovits, a physician-researcher at George Washington University. The paper is titled "A New Minimally Invasive Fusion Technique: Traditional Spine Fusion Through Portal Approach Using Growth Factors."

The 1996 Research Grant Award from the North American Spine Society went to Boden and Marone, who are investigating genetic manipulation of the spinal fusion process. They are particularly interested in how the genes of bone cells express themselves through their protein products. The researchers hope to apply molecular biologic methods such as gene therapy to create new bone or regenerate diseased discs.

-Lorri Preston

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