Marquette receives $500,000 for research from the Bryon Riesch Foundation

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Marquette receives $500,000 for research from the Bryon Riesch Foundation

The Byron Riesch Paralysis Foundation pledged Feb. 15 to donate $500,000 to Marquette College of Health Sciences to fund research of Dr. Murray Blackmore, an associate professor of biomedical science.

The Byron Riesch Paralysis Foundation pledged Feb. 15 to donate $500,000 to Marquette College of Health Sciences to fund research of Dr. Murray Blackmore, an associate professor of biomedical science.

Photo by Margaret Cahill

The Byron Riesch Paralysis Foundation pledged Feb. 15 to donate $500,000 to Marquette College of Health Sciences to fund research of Dr. Murray Blackmore, an associate professor of biomedical science.

Photo by Margaret Cahill

Photo by Margaret Cahill

The Byron Riesch Paralysis Foundation pledged Feb. 15 to donate $500,000 to Marquette College of Health Sciences to fund research of Dr. Murray Blackmore, an associate professor of biomedical science.

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The Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation pledged Feb. 15 to donate $500,000 to Marquette’s College of Health Sciences to fund research, particularly that of Murray Blackmore, an associate professor of biomedical sciences.

Blackmore’s lab studies spinal cord injuries, but more specifically studies gene therapy, grafts of stem cells that go into the spinal cord and regrowing axons, which allow the brain to communicate with the spinal cord. 

But Riesch said this foundation and its generosity toward Marquette has deeper roots due to Riesch’s story. 

Riesch was a freshman at Marquette University in 1998 when his life changed forever. 

Riesch said after jumping on a Slip ‘N Slide, his hand slipped out in front of him, he hit his chin and threw his neck back. From then on, he was quadriplegic. Quadriplegia is paralysis of the body from the shoulders down that is the result of damage to the spinal cord, according to Avery Biomedical Devices,

After the incident, Riesch said he can move his shoulders and biceps, but cannot move his triceps, fingers or wrists, and uses a wheelchair. 

It was obviously a huge change, going from (an) able-bodied person, young and your whole life in front of you, to someone who almost can’t move and your independence has been taken from you,” Riesch said. 

Riesch graduated from Marquette in five years with degrees in informational technology and marketing. 

Riesch and the foundation’s website said the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation began in 2001. Janet Curtis, the director of development of the foundation who works closely with Riesch to secure funding, said the foundation has three main goals in terms of where it gives money. 

“Wraise money for medical research, which is what Dr. Blackmore is doing. We raise money for charitable grants, whether it be for wheelchair adaptation, vehicle hand control, ramps and then we give out scholarships so either the person who’s injured or a family member can go back to school and receive an education and gain their independence because the financial burden on the whole family is so great when you are injured,” Curtis said. 

Blackmore and the College of Health Sciences received $50,000 from the first grant in 2013. Each subsequent year, Blackmore has reapplied for the annual grant and received $50,000 a year for the past six years. 

Blackmore does receive money from the National Institute of Health. According to its website is “a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the nation’s medical research agency — making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.”

But Blackmore said that while he receives some funding from the NIH, that money goes toward more short-term projects with a clear goal, while the seed funding he gets from the Bryon Riesch Foundation allows him to work on larger projects. 

It’s used for research on finding new treatments for spinal cord injuries,” Blackmore said. But what it’s really for is the crazy ideas that it’s very hard to get funding for. So it’s seed funding for exploratory ideas. 

But this year, Blackmore applied for the first time for a larger grant—$500,000 that the foundation will give to him in $50,000 increments over the next 10 years. He said he did this because applying annually for the money has significant disadvantages. 

“The problem with that model is every year we’ve had to compete for the next pot of $50,000,” Blackmore said. “There’s pros and cons — competition can be good and it forces you to come up with the best idea and fight for it — but it makes it really hard to do any long-term planning. You can only invest in a short-term project. 

Blackmore said that he is excited to have the opportunity to have the money guaranteed for the next 10 years so he can focus on larger projects concerning stem cells, gene therapy, and axon repairing.

We need the continuity and the certainty of having the money in order to launch long-term creative projects,” Blackmore said. 

Blackmore said these methods can all contribute to finding a way to help those who are paralyzed. 

Curtis said the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation is happy to give the money to Blackmore. 

“It’s truly because of the research Dr. Blackmore is doing,” Curtis said. “When we get applications for research, we have a community of different neurologists that look at the research and they will either grade it as yes, no or not likely. And every time Dr. Blackmore’s research has come by, they feel that this really has a lot of merit and can be something greater and bigger. 

Riesch said he agrees and has always been supportive of Blackmore’s work ever since he first applied for a grant. 

He has an absolute amazing passion,” Riesch said. “One thing you have to have to have success and really make it in this field is to find passion. And he has it. He really wants to see individuals like me walk again. He wants to see success. And he wants to make it happen and he wants to be a part of it.”

Riesch and Curtis are not the only admirers of Blackmore’s work in spinal cord research, as students who work in his lab said they also believe strongly in the work he does. 

David Nowak, a senior in the College of Health Sciences who has been working in Blackmore’s lab since January of his freshman year, said he has had an amazing experience there and finds Blackmore and the work that he does “inspiring.” 

“He does a really good job in turning his passions in to really good science, which I think is really unique,” Nowak said. “It’s really inspiring to see how he’s not afraid to motivate us, especially in regard to the Bryon Riesch foundation, and we get to do a lot of events with them and we see people in the community advocating for survivors of spinal cord injuries. 

Derek Gross, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences, echoed this sentiment.

“Joining this lab this semester has been one of the most positive experiences I’ve had since I’ve come to Marquette,” Gross said. 

Gross said he feels lucky to be doing research that benefits the community. 

It’s nice knowing that the project we’re on is going to yield some really important results that could help push the research for this problem in a really good direction, Gross said. “And knowing that that work that I’m putting into this lab is actually contributing to that in a significant way, feels really good. 

Blackmore said that over the years, he and Riesch have become close personally. He even keeps a bobblehead of Riesch at his desk that he turns to when he feels disheartened. 

“Some days, it’s not a good day so I’m like, ‘Good God, Bryon do I even keep doing this?’ and he says, ‘Yeah you’re alright,’” Blackmore said. “So he’s my inspiration to keep doing this. 

Blackmore said his relationship with the Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation is “mutually beneficial” because while the foundation gives Blackmore money to fund his research, Blackmore and with the students in his lab attend fundraising events such as golf outings, fashion shows for paralyzed individuals and Curtis said the College of Health Sciences hosts a bowling fundraiser in the Union Sports Annex to raise money. 

The next golf outing is April 7 at the Silver Spring Country Club in Menomonee Falls, WI and Riesch said he hopes there will be many supporters attending. 

But Blackmore said that since he sees where the money is coming from, the $500,000 grant he received impacted him differently. 

Obviously I was very excited. But there was a feeling of … ‘Am I really worth it?’” Blackmore said. “Because here’s the thing with the Bryon Riesch foundation, it’s just this local grassroots thing. And it’s just incredible that they’ve raised this much money because they’re not rich people. They’re just regular people who are reaching out to the community... so when the foundation says, ‘We think that you, Dr. Blackmore, are important enough that we’re going to take a big chunk of that hard-earned money and give it to you, it’s awesome, but it also feels like a responsibility to make good on this investment because I know how hard they’ve worked to get this money. 

But regardless of Blackmore’s occasional moments of doubt, Curtis said the foundation believes in him. 

“We really find merit in what Marquette and Dr. Blackmore are doing,” Curtis said. “We’re pretty conscious about where that money goes because we really do work hard to raise our money, so we have to make sure we do our due diligence in giving it to the research institutions that are going to really produce some type of finding for us. 

Riesch said he is thankful for researchers like Blackmore and is hopeful for the future. 

I’ve always had this dream of walking again ever since I was injured. I know back then I was not smart enough to be part of a research team to go out there and try to figure out how the heck to make this happen,” Riesch said. “But I did know I had a heck of a story and I was halfway decent at raising money and I could help out that way. That’s been my goal and my passion or the past 20 years. In many ways it’s kept me going and given a lot of meaning to my life. 

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