Research helps MS patients

Research helps MS patients

28 October 2015

Old Collegian Che Fornusek (Sargood House 1985-89) is leading two major research projects at the University of Sydney that will improve the lives of people living with physical disabilities.

Fornusek’s main project focuses on people with spinal injuries and Multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord resulting in loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation.

He is using a mechanically altered exercise bike that forces leg movement through electronic pulses to discover if exercise will improve participants’ quality of life.

“The idea with spinal injuries was that we would get bigger gains in muscle mass by exercising the muscles in a particular way,” Fornusek explained.

“After this, I realised we could apply the same techniques to people with MS to get positive results.” The process is uncomfortable, bordering on painful, but Fornusek’s participants keep returning for treatment.

“No one is going to turn up and go through that pain for no reason, they feel it works for them. It’s definitely not for lazy people. It’s for people who don’t have a choice.”

MS Research Australia is funding the project, hoping that Fornusek’s findings will offer a breakthrough for people living with the disease.

“People living with paralysis lose their option to exercise which makes them less active. Then they develop other associated health problems like poor bone density, less blood flow and cold legs.”

Fornusek’s research shows that the introduction of exercise to those with spinal injuries has created bigger muscles, better blood flow, improved health and less pressure sores. The results in MS participants has been positive too.

“People with MS can stand longer and balance better, their legs aren’t as cold and they don’t feel as much pain. The increased strength and balance will possibly lead to less falls. It doesn’t reverse the disease but it reverses the inactivity and optimises how they function.”

In the near future Fornusek is looking to introduce those with Cerebral palsy – a disease that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills – to the study.

“We might be able to better their body composition and decrease secondary complications.”

Fornusek’s team have also produced a mobile exercise bike that could, with significant alterations, be used as a means of transportation. For now it is being used for sport.

Paraplegic Greg McClure used the bike to enter the Cybathlon in Zurich last year, a sports event for people with physical disabilities that use assistive devices including robot technology that enables them to compete. Fornusek says they will be taking a team of competitors over to Zurich for the next event.

Fornusek is also researching the effects of team sport and team exercise for people living with physical disabilities.

The project has been a huge success. He has four rugby teams currently training and competing in Sydney. This year it has been introduced to Auckland with a Trans-Tasman game in the works.

The main focus of the project is assessing the physical effects of the sport, mainly how much faster and stronger participants get. Fornusek also plans to look at the social side of things.

“There is social development and confidence that comes from playing something they thought they couldn’t do before.”

Respect is given to all people on the team and play is altered according to their capabilities, for instance some players wear red shorts to indicate they can’t be tackled. Fornusek says players also alter the harshness of their tackles according to their opponent’s capabilities.

Fornusek’s love for science started while he was boarding at St Paul’s. He studied all mainstream science subjects – biology, chemistry and physics – before moving onto Canterbury University to complete his undergraduate degree. He has since studied Biomedical Engineering at the University of NSW and a doctorate at Sydney University where his research is now based.

(Source: Karen Pickering)