Head of Wings For Life UK

Q What is your position in Wings For Life and what does your role entail?

A As Head of Wings for Life UK, my chief responsibility is to manage and lead our UK team to raise as much money and awareness for Wings for Life’s spinal research programme as possible. To achieve this, my day-to-day responsibilities vary greatly. High on the agenda is leading and managing the delivery of the charity’s varied fundraising activities including major events, corporate partnerships and community fundraising. I look after our media brand and communication work which includes working with our incredible Wings for Life Friends and Ambassadors. As a charity dedicated to funding the most cutting-edge research projects around the world, maintaining relationships with UK scientific researchers is also a key priority. I work alongside the Trustee Board every year to select world-class scientific research projects for the UK foundation to fund.

Q Tell us about Wings For Life and the driving force behind its vision to cure traumatic spinal cord injury?

A Wings for Life was founded in 2004 by Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz and the two-time motocross world champion Heinz Kinigadner after Heinz’s son Hannes suffered a spinal cord injury during a motocross race. When these two friends were told there were no treatment options available for Hannes, they couldn’t believe it. Determined that spinal cord injury should no longer remain a question of fate, they set up Wings for Life with a clear mission: to find a cure for spinal cord injury.

Since then the organisation has expanded and is now registered in five countries – Austria, Germany, Spain, USA and UK. Whilst our roots sprung from the world of sports, we are a charity dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injury for everyone affected, irrespective of how the injury was sustained. Contrary to popular belief, the greatest cause of spinal cord injuries is in fact in road traffic accidents – a cause which is answerable for 50% of all injuries.

Q What are Wings for Life’s current research and fundraising projects?

A Highlights of our fundraising calendar this year include The Cord Club – an evening of fine dining and entertainment hosted by Wings for Life ambassadors and Formula One icons David Coulthard and Susie Wolff; The Formula One Challenge – a ten-month challenge in which companies race to raise the most they can for Wings for Life in return for Infiniti Red Bull Racing rewards; and The Wings for Life World Run. The World Run is a global event and it’s really pioneering. On May 4th in 35 countries, thousands of participants will start to run at the same time. Instead of chasing a finish line, a catcher-car will move alongside them at an ever increasing pace, eliminating runners one-by-one until a global champion remains. We have a wheelchair race in the UK too.

Fundraising activities such as this have helped to raise our profile and, as a consequence, we’ve seen applications for research project funding double in the last two years. All of our research projects are broadly based on three key areas: 1. Minimising damage as soon as an injury occurs; 2. Stimulating regeneration and reconstruction in the spinal cord; 3. Indirectly re-building function in the spine through physical rehabilitation. Ultimately, the goal is always the same: finding ways to save and restore lost functions.

In the UK specifically, current research projects include a study at the University of Cambridge by Dr Jessica Kwok in which she is investigating ways of neutralising the negative effects of inhibitory molecules in the injured area which block nerve repair. Doctors David Bennett and Liz Bradbury at Oxford University and Kings College London are investigating how Neuregulin-1 (NRG1) contributes to endogenous repair mechanisms after injury. It is hoped that by manipulating the NRG1 pathway, recovery could be enhanced.

Q What could this mean for the future of spinal cord injuries?

A Our role is to raise the funds needed to back the most cutting-edge research projects that hold the most promise of turning into treatments. The research community is very positive about progress in research over recent years and now moving research from lab-based research into more clinical trials is absolutely essential.  Initiatives such as the Wings for Life World Run are an incredible opportunity to expand awareness for Wings for Life and raise significantly more funds for research projects so we can get closer to our goal of finding a cure for spinal cord injury. The developments that have been demonstrated in research so far provide strong hope that treatment options are closer than they have ever been. However, intensive research work and investment will be needed before a breakthrough in human medicine can be achieved.

Q How closely do you work with surgeons or medical device companies?

A We work with researchers specifically. Some of whom are in fact trained neuroscientists, but for us, the emphasis is on those dedicated to carrying out studies and clinical trials. We are not closely involved with medical device companies.

Q How can our readers become involved in the charity?

A We’re proud to say that when you support Wings for Life, 100% of the money you donate will go directly to spinal cord injury research because our charity’s founders pay all of our overhead costs. Any contributions from readers, no matter how big or small will go directly to funding the best research in the best research institutions around the world. Readers can get involved in the charity in numerous ways, from joining us on our social media platforms to putting on their own individual supporter events, all support is gratefully received. For those who are determined to set themselves a 2014 challenge, The Wings for Life World Run is a brilliant way of getting involved as 100% of the £40 sign-up fee goes to Wings for Life. From amateurs to ultra-runners this is set to be a terrific race in which the finish line pursues you.