UHN’s reputation as a spinal cord injury research hub continues to grow with latest accolade from Nature

CRANIA scientist Dr. Michael Fehlings was recently named the top ranked author worldwide for articles relevant to spinal cord injury

UHN’s biomedical research ecosystem continues to gain international recognition for its innovation and leadership in the field of spinal cord injury (SCI) research.

Dr. Michael Fehlings, a Toronto Western neurosurgeon and Scientist with UHN’s Krembil Brain Institute and the CenteR for Advancing Neurotechnological Innovation to Application (CRANIA) was recently ranked the top author for articles relevant to SCI over the last two decades, according to a bibliometric analysis of global research on SCI by the scientific journal Nature. 

Fehlings joins a growing number of scientific teams across UHN who are actively engaged in SCI research across multiple fronts.

Between the years 1999 and 2019 more than 41,000 articles related to SCI were published worldwide, with long-time UHN academic partner the University of Toronto (UofT), and Harvard University making the most contributions during that timeframe.  

“It’s humbling to see not only my work, but the work of everyone in Toronto’s rich medical ecosystem, recognized in this way,” said Fehlings, who is also the Vice Chair Research for the Department of Surgery at UofT and the Robert Campeau Family Foundation / Dr. C.H. Tator Chair in Brain and Spinal Cord Research at UHN.  

“I’ve been fortunate to have my work supported by the number one research hospital in the nation and the top post-secondary institution in Canada.”

Fehlings has published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles (h-index 108; cited over 49,000 times) chiefly in the area of central nervous system injury and complex spinal surgery.

UHN’s SCI research program, and as a result Toronto’s standing in the field, has grown exponentially in the last two decades thanks to the leadership of Fehlings and many others, most notably, the research teams located at Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst Centre, and the growth of the National SCI Conference, which is hosted by The KITE Research Institute.

Lyndhurst Centre, founded in 1945, has a long history of treating patients living with SCI, but starting in the early 2000s it also introduced a SCI research program. 

When Drs. Cathy Craven and Milos R. Popovic first arrived at the facility the research department only had two scientists. Two decades later the enterprise is home to 110 people, including staff, scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and trainees.  

Craven believes the key to growing the program is investment in mentorship, a focus on translational dialogue, and using insights from clinicians to guide research.  

“It’s not good enough to just publish a paper, we need to develop tools that clinicians can use to improve their day-to-day care of people with SCI,” said  Craven, who is a Senior Scientist at KITE and the Medical Director of the Spinal Cord Rehab Program at Toronto Rehab.

 “We have this ongoing dialogue with clinicians every day because we share the same spaces, which is quite unique if you look around the world. Most research institutes are in a separate building from the clinical side.” 

The National SCI Conference founded in 2004 by Craven, Popovic, and Dr. Colleen McGillivray which eventually grew into The Canadian Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Association has helped spur innovation and collaboration in the field in Toronto and nationwide.

The purpose of the conference, which is takes place every two years, is to discuss new inventions and rehabilitation methods in SCI and how they can be used to advance care for patients. Scientists, patients, their family members, and frontline clinicians from across the country attend the event.    

“We want to create a space where we can harness our knowledge of SCI and channel it in manner that will create effective and long-lasting change,” said KITE Director Dr. Popovic.

These three components – the National SCI Conference, the research program at Lyndhurst Centre and Dr. Michael Fehlings tremendous research contribution – have been essential in helping Toronto become a global leader in spinal cord research and to deliver on UHN’s Vision of helping create a Healthier World.