UW researcher’s career inspired by his own spinal cord injury

December 13, 2023

Dan Hellenbrand grew up on a small farm near Lodi and by his 20s was on the path to his desired career in carpentry. Then, in an instant, that path vanished.

In April 2003, he was helping to construct a home in Middleton and fell from the trusses of the partially constructed house. The impact damaged his spinal cord at the C5 and C6 vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed with no leg mobility and limited arm mobility.

His experiences since that fateful day took him in an unexpected direction.

Hellenbrand is now a researcher in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. His career shift was inspired by the experience of suffering a spinal cord injury and the subsequent long rehabilitation process.

While recovering from his injury and working on a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology from Miami University in Ohio, he met other people with similar injuries. Although uncertain of the next steps in his academic journey, he wanted to be able to help people with spinal cord injuries.

This injury made me want to help other people like me.

– Dan Hellenbrand

Hellenbrand applied to a graduate program at UW–Madison after learning about the work of James Thomson, professor of cell and regenerative biology, UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Thomson studied the potential of pluripotent stem cells for a variety of medical purposes. Hellenbrand earned a master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2010, committed to using his education to advance research on spinal cord injuries, he said.

“This injury made me want to help other people like me.” Hellenbrand said.

While at UW, he met Dr. Amgad Hanna, professor of neurological surgery, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and a neurosurgeon at UW Health.

Today, Hellenbrand collaborates with early-career researchers and undergraduate students in Hanna’s lab at the Medical Sciences Center on University Avenue at the heart of the UW–Madison campus, trying to unlock the inner workings of the spinal cord.

The two men had a common aim to cure spinal cord injury, Hanna said.

“When I first met Dan, it was clear that he had the drive; I just wasn’t sure how much he could do without the ability to use his legs and with limited use of his arms,” he said. “What Dan has achieved since then exceeds what lots of people with full mobility in their arms and legs can achieve.”

Their research focuses on finding new methods for delivering drugs to the spinal cord to heal damage from injury. Hellenbrand and Hanna, in collaboration with the laboratory of Bill Murphy, professor of biomedical engineering at UW–Madison College of Engineering, are examining how small proteins called cytokines can be used to reduce inflammation after a spinal cord injury and promote axon growth in the spinal cord. By engineering methods to deliver these small signaling proteins, the researchers hope to improve bioactivity of the proteins and lengthen the duration of protein signaling.

“We are still testing these things in the lab, but these approaches have shown promise, and our hope is one day to develop new treatments to help people regain some functionality,” Hellenbrand said.

Family played a key role

Hellenbrand’s story could not be complete without his wife Amy, who was his fiancé at the time of the accident, according to Hanna.

“I was given a one-day pass to leave the hospital for our wedding and I had to be back by 8 a.m. the next day,” he said with a laugh. “I’m lucky my wife has been by my side the whole time.”

Amy and Dan got married in June of 2003.

“They both faced a lot of unknowns at the time of their wedding,” Hanna said. “Her support for Dan through all those years is exemplary.”

They now have a 12-year-old daughter. Dan and his family live in a home they built on his family’s farmland near Lodi, and there is nothing he enjoys more than being home with his family, he said.

Beyond research

In addition to searching for cures and treatments for spinal cord injuries, Dan often visits patients who recently experienced a spinal cord injury to help them understand the next steps in their lives and to answer their questions.

“When I was in the hospital, someone came to visit me who had a spinal cord injury, so I wanted to do that for others,” he said. “This injury is such a change in someone’s life that it can be really hard for new patients to understand, ‘you know, how do these things work out?’”

He also advocates for increased funding for spinal cord research in coordination with a Minnesota-based group called Unite to Fight Paralysis. In March 2023, he submitted testimony to the state Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities in support of Wisconsin Assembly bill 19. The legislation would allocate $1.5 million annually for grants administered by the Department of Health Services to support spinal cord injury research.

Unite to Fight Paralysis has worked to get similar legislation passed in other states, according to Dan.

Dan has made an incredible impact on the research community, according to Hanna.

He manages a lab that includes 10 to 12 undergraduate students learning how to conduct research, while also publishing his work in very prestigious journals and applying for and securing grants, Hanna said.

“The way he converted his injury to a completely different career gives hope to other people with a spinal cord injury,” he said. “When I have patients with spinal cord injury, I tell them Dan’s story, and they usually want to meet him.”