Ex-athletes latest challenge: to find spinal injury cure

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Marco Sorani doesn't know exactly what happened two years ago when he was swimming with friends off Point Reyes.

Maybe a wave hit him. Maybe he swam into something.

"It could have been a sand bar. It could have been anything," he said.

The next he knew, Sorani was floating face down, unable to turn over. Like actor Christopher Reeve and 10,000 other people each year, Sorani had sustained a spinal cord injury. It left him paralyzed and a paraplegic.

He had been an active kid when he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Israel's Western Wall in 1982. He played varsity water polo at Princeton University in the late 1980s. He swam competitively all his life.

Now he's active again, this time in raising money to help cure spinal cord injuries. Only a year after the injury that left him immobile from the chest down, with only the use of his arms, Sorani founded the Bay Area chapter of the Buoniconti Fund, a fund-raising organization to support the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Their latest fund-raising dinner, "Stepping Out…for a Cure," will take place Saturday, June 22 at the former Hearst mansion in Hillsborough.

Celebrated chef Gerald Hirigoyen — owner of San Francisco's Fringale and the recently opened Pastis — will prepare a six-course dinner that includes foie gras medallions poached in sweet duck broth, and chocolate tartlet with purple basil ice cream.

It's a more upscale affair than the chapter has ever attempted.

"It's the most high-profile dinner, in the sense that we have a world-renowned chef," Sorani said. With each fund-raiser, "we try to reach out to different segment of the Bay Area population."

Honorary co-chairs for the event are hostess Penny Bellamy, photographer Morton Beebe and Michela Alioto. Alioto, 28, is the granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph M. Alioto and a candidate for U.S. Congress from the First District in Napa. She has been using a wheelchair since falling from a ski lift in 1981.

The Buoniconti Fund was named after Marc Buoniconti, the son of former Miami Dolphin Nick Buoniconti, who was paralyzed in a football game. The fund was set up to support the Miami Project.

Recent research from the Miami Project suggests a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis is possible, even though doctors had until recently written off the problem as hopeless, Sorani said.

"One of the major assumptions before [the Miami Project began] was that nerve cells did not regenerate," said Sorani, a 27-year-old business consultant.

But experiments in 1991 proved that if the central nucleus of a cell survives, the cell will regenerate its body, or "axon." This could allow cells to grow across a break in the spinal cord and reconnect to the other side.

"That was a major discovery, in seeing recovery is possible," Sorani said.

"The progress we have made in the last two years [in spinal cord injury research] equals that made in the last two centuries," according to Dr. Barth A. Green, founder of the Miami Project, in an article in the June issue of Miami Medicine.

The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis is the largest paralysis research center in the world, staffed by more than 60 scientists and technicians working in 17,000 square feet of laboratory space. They conduct basic science research, clinical research programs, and rehabilitative research. It costs $6 million a year to operate.

Currently researchers are experimenting with lab rats, but hope soon to start working with primates. Scientists outside the United States are also looking at transplanting fetal cells to victims of spinal cord injuries.

They may cure spinal cord injuries in Sorani's lifetime.

"But it's not going to happen soon," Sorani said. "It's a slow process."