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Regenerating Lives - with Karen DaSilva, MD, Neurology

Oct 10, 2017, 15:35 PM by Adele Menichella
Karen DaSilvaDr. Karen DaSilva was ten years old when her brother, Martin, a high school football player, returned home from practice with an unusual request. “The coach urged him to see a
neurologist,” she remembers. Martin, who’d always participated in sports, had been falling behind his teammates in speed drills.

Dr. DaSilva says, “I remember my parents thought he might
have injured his spine. They were shocked when the neurologist diagnosed him with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an incurable neuromuscular disease.”

Her brother’s diagnosis made a powerful impact on the fifth grader. “Right there, I decided to go into science,” says Dr. DaSilva, “so I might one day find a cure for my brother’s SMA.”

After completing undergraduate studies, Dr. DaSilva did research and published studies for four years at Scripps Institute. “I studied glial cells, which are supportive cells for neurons, and retinal cells. As a medical student I also worked with spinal stem cells at one of Christopher Reeve’s clinics, at UC Irvine. And, we looked at regenerating cells of animals with spinal cord injuries.”

While doing research at Scripps, Dr. DaSilva worked directly with human subjects with hemangiomas, which are blood vessels that grow out of control and become knotted. Dr.
DaSilva says, “After working in a lab for several years, I found I loved being around people, so I changed my career path from research to medical practice.” Martin and Karen’s younger sister, Jennifer also chose medicine, pursuing a research-based PhD in
Physical Therapy.

Meanwhile, her brother’s doctors did not prescribe a specific treatment protocol for him to follow. “Even without a cure for certain neuromuscular conditions, we have so many
more resources available to us today,” says Dr. DaSilva. With determination and patience, Martin eventually mastered wheelchair mobility. He successfully completed an advanced course of technological study and today works in the field of management information systems. Recently, his sister persuaded him to take steps toward participating in a clinical trial, “his first in twenty years,” says Dr. DaSilva.

Dr. DaSilva appreciates that “there are so many different and effective ways to treat neurological conditions. Often, families feel helpless, as mine did, when a child is diagnosed with a neurological disease with no known cure. That’s when I ask, ‘how can we help?’”

Because she sees patients who have a variety of conditions, Dr. DaSilva has a wealth of experience in helping families make informed treatment decisions. “I frequently direct patients with ALS (arterial lateral sclerosis), MD (muscular dystrophy) and MG (myasthenia gravis), and other neuropathies to research centers.” Additionally, Dr. DaSilva encourages lifestyle changes, such as water activity, that enhance body/mind conditioning, and participating in support groups. “It’s important to create a plan of action,” says Dr. DaSilva. “It makes a huge difference, for patients and their families, in the quality of life.”