Drs. Richard and Mary Bunge Awarded the 2018 ASIA Lifetime Achievement Award

The American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) awarded the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Richard P Bunge and Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge.  The award is presented to individuals who made a significant contribution to the world of spinal cord injury care.

Dr. Richard Bunge and Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge devoted their careers to understanding and repairing the central nervous system.  Their research of Schwann cells allowed The Miami Project to gain approval from the FDA to initiate clinical trials of Schwann cell transplantation in people with spinal cord injury.  In addition to their own scientific contributions, they trained countless scientists who will continue their work for many years to come.

Richard P. Bunge, M.D. spent his lifetime at the forefront of research efforts to understand and improve the processes of repair in the nervous system. While a medical student, he discovered that myelin could be broken down and then reformed in the adult mammalian spinal cord, a revolutionary idea in the 1950s. This discovery initiated his lifelong love of research and abandonment of his goal to become a physician.  This work led to the discovery, with Dr. Mary Bunge, of the mechanism of CNS myelination and the demonstration of the connections between forming myelin and oligodendrocytes. While still a young investigator Dr. Bunge and his colleagues, primarily Dr. Patrick Wood, developed a cell culture system in which myelination could be studied systematically and fundamental discoveries elucidating the processes underlying Schwann cell-neuron interactions could be made.  He proposed in 1975 that cellular grafts, particularly of Schwann cells, could be prepared in tissue culture and then transplanted to enhance repair in the CNS.  Accordingly, he pioneered studies of the biology of adult human Schwann cells as a prelude to possible autotransplantation into sites of spinal cord injury in the human. In 1990, he initiated an extensive and detailed characterization of the pathology of human spinal cord injury that provided novel and fundamental insights into the nature of that injury, including demyelination and axonal degeneration.

After obtaining his M.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1960, Dr. Bunge went to Columbia University to learn the technique of nerve tissue culture with one of its founders, Dr. Margaret R. Murray. He then held faculty appointments in Anatomy at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1962 to 1970, and in Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine from 1970 to 1988, before joining the faculty at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.  He held the Kinetic Concepts Distinguished Chair in Neurological Surgery and was Scientific Director of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Throughout his distinguished career he published 153 peer-reviewed manuscripts in high quality neuroscience journals and was awarded an impressive array of grants from the NIH. Dr. Bunge received Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards from the NIH, the Friedrich von Rechlinghausen Award for the Advancement of Medical Sciences in Neurofibromatosis, the Gordon Conference on Myelin Chairman Award, and the prestigious Wakeman Award for his pioneering work in tissue culture and cell biology of fetal cells, transplantation, and detailed descriptions of human spinal cord injury. He was named a Heiner Sell Memorial Lecturer by ASIA, a lecture he never gave due to his untimely death in 1996. Upon his passing an edition of Experimental Neurology was dedicated in his memory, in which the Section Editors Drs. Jerry Silver and Scott Whittamore wrote, “Those of us who work in these areas owe a great debt of gratitude to Richard Bunge and his legacy of scientific achievements.”

Mary Bartlett Bunge, Ph.D., is currently Professor of Cell Biology, Neurological Surgery, and Neurology and the Christine E. Lynn Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at the Miller School of Medicine, working in The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Dr. Bunge earned her M.S. degree in Medical Physiology under Thesis advisor, R.F. Schilling, at the University of Wisconsin Medical School (1955), and her Ph.D. in Zoology-Cytology with advisor, Dr. Hans Ris (1960). She was an NINDB Post-Doctoral Fellow (1960-62) in the Department of Anatomy (Dr. George D. Pappas) and Laboratory for Cell Physiology (Dr. Margaret R. Murray) at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Pursuing an overall goal of promoting nervous system repair, Dr. Mary Bunge has been a pioneer in identifying the structure and function of cells that form myelin and, more recently, in developing a new spinal cord injury model and novel combination strategies to improve repair of the injured spinal cord. Her laboratory currently conducts preclinical studies aimed at developing neuroprotective and neuro-regenerative therapies for spinal cord injuries. These therapies include the transplantation of genetically modified Schwann cells to facilitate regeneration in damaged spinal cords. The Bunge work on the efficacy of transplanted Schwann cells in spinal cord repair contributed to gaining approval from the FDA in 2012 for initiating clinical trial testing of these cells in spinal cord injured subjects.

Dr. Bunge has published 47 book chapters and scholarly monographs, and 161 peer reviewed manuscripts. These articles have been cited by her peers in nearly 13,000 of their manuscripts. She has received numerous NIH grants, including a current award that has provided uninterrupted funding for 45 years.  The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation also provided funding for many years. Dr. Bunge has served as Chair or member of 13 NIH study sections and Councils for the NINDS and the American Society for Cell Biology. She has served on editorial boards for Experimental Neurology, the Journal of Neurocytology, and the Journal of Cell Biology. She has worked as Chair or member of 37 Society and Organization Boards and Panels, including the NIH Director Search Committee and the National Task Force for the NIH Strategic Plan.

Like her collaborator and partner, Dr. Mary Bunge received the Wakeman Award (1996) for her seminal contributions to the field of spinal cord injury repair, and also the Christopher Reeve Research Medal for Spinal Cord Repair (2001) and a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award for 1998-2005, and was the first recipient of the Mika Salpeter Women in Neuroscience Lifetime Achievement Award (2000). She has also received the Lois Pope LIFE International Research Award (2005).  In 2013, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.  At the University of Miami, she was named the Distinguished Faculty Scholar for 2012 and was inducted in 2005 into Iron Arrow, the highest honor at the University.  Dr.  Bunge has mentored 15 doctoral students and 32 post-doctoral fellows.  Mentoring trainees has been an important priority.  As a member (1993-2007) and Chair of the Development of Women’s Careers in Neuroscience Committee, Society for Neuroscience (Sven, 1993-2007), she instituted a variety of mentoring activities that has led recently to a mentoring luncheon held every year at the annual SfN meeting.  Dr. Bunge founded the Mary Bartlett Bunge Distinguished Women in Cell Biology Lecture Series that has brought an outstanding lecture and mentoring sessions to the University community every year since 2005.

Theirs was a true and productive partnership, not only in their personal lives but also as a research team.  As Mary Bunge often has said, “We completed each other.”  Their shared goal of applying the basic science findings to clinical situations helped drive the progression of “bench” studies of Schwann cell biology to the “bedside” testing of autologous Schwann cell transplantation in spinal cord injured subjects in the Miami Project.  To quote Mary Bunge again, “This has been such an exciting, fruitful and especially fulfilling journey”.