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Pioneering Rehabilitation

Burke Medical Research Institute Scientist Awarded Research Grant from American Diabetes Association

Published February 1, 2012

The Burke Medical Research Institute—the research entity of the Burke Rehabilitation Center—has been awarded a three-year, $300,000 scientific research grant by the American Diabetes Association. The grant will fund the study of how neurons may malfunction in diabetic patients, causing metabolic complications such as diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is an extremity pain syndrome that is one of the most common complications of diabetes, often diminishing the quality of life of those who suffer from it, yet little is known about its mechanism.

Spearheading the effort to learn more about this complication is Dianna E. Willis, Ph.D., author of the grant and principal investigator of The Burke Medical Research Institute’s Pain Research Laboratory and assistant professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College. “In order to understand diabetic peripheral neuropathy, we must have a better understanding of what makes the neurons in patients with diabetes different than those in their healthy counterparts,” Willis said, adding, “are there specific capacities that they don’t have based on this condition?” For instance, Willis points out the medically accepted notion that people with diabetes have a diminished capacity for healing. This complication can lead to catastrophic consequences such as amputation of toes, feet and even legs when a patient doesn’t heal properly. Her current research focus is to better understand how axonal transport and local protein synthesis contribute to damaged neurons that lead to neuropathic pain. Similar deficiencies could be affecting nerves causing them to send inadequate or inappropriate signals that register as pain, numbness, burning or other manifestations of peripheral neuropathy.

The grant was awarded to Willis and the Burke Medical Research Institute after a rigorous two-step scientific review process where only about 25% of the original grant applications moved forward following the initial review. The second review was even more rigorous. According to Willis, “This type of grant is significant because historically Burke’s research has mainly been focused on cell regeneration. This grant will focus on neuropathic pain specific to people with diabetes. This expanded focus and fresh perspective in research can lead to increased understanding of disease states and help facilitate important scientific breakthroughs.”

According to Rajiv R. Ratan, M.D., Ph.D., executive medical director of the Burke Medical Research Institute and professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, “We are both proud and excited about Dr. Willis’s work on diabetic peripheral neuropathy because it will allow us to learn more about the neuropathic signal process and how mechanisms can be damaged by disease.”

Funded by grants and private donations, Burke’s Medical Research Institute is involved in cutting edge basic, translational and clinical research, providing new knowledge that can become the basis for future rehabilitation therapies in the areas of stroke, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury. The Institute has recently added new research laboratories in the areas of pain, vision restoration and motor recovery.

Burke Rehabilitation Hospital is a private, not-for-profit, acute rehabilitation hospital. Founded in 1915, it is the only hospital in Westchester County dedicated solely to rehabilitation medicine. Burke offers both inpatient and outpatient programs for those who have experienced a disabling illness, traumatic injury or joint replacement surgery. Burke is both an acute rehabilitation hospital and medical research center. Burke’s world renowned doctors and therapists provide state-of-the-art ­treatment, while its research scientists at the Burke Medical Research Institute explore the frontiers of neurological and rehabilitation medicine. All share the Burke mission to ensure that every patient makes the fullest possible recovery from illness or injury regardless of their ability to pay.