By Tom Tremayne


How did Wings for Life come about?

“We started it when Hannes had his accident, because I thought ‘Okay, this is impossible now’. My brother has already spent 30 years in a wheelchair, and now again an even higher lesion with more damage, this was impossible.

“So we try with Alfie Cox, an off-road rider from South Africa and a good friend of ours – two days after Hannes’ accident he phoned and said ‘Sorry, this is so bad, and hey, by the way, I’m doing these motorcycle adventure tours here in South Africa and a few months ago there was a guy from Germany here. He’s very young but he knows everything about spinal cord injury, you should contact him.’ So this is what I did, and the day after he was in Salzburg. This guy is Dr Jan Schwab, he’s the scientific leader of our foundation.

“It is very frustrating. I phoned Mr Mateschitz and I said ‘Hey Dietrich, very bad accident with Hannes, today is Saturday afternoon, I know all the good doctors are not at the hospitals, so I need the best one you can find, so please’. Then this professor who did the operation, I told him ‘Okay, there is a special study going on at the Viessmann Institute in Israel with microfax, can you explain me what it is?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not a researcher so I’ve no idea.

“Shit, I’m a baker and a motorcycle rider, what can I do? So this for example was one project we were trying to get into but finally it was not good. Then the Mayo Clinic in the States, the Miami project, then of course the Christopher Reeve Foundation which was one of the most active foundations. People gave so much money, incredible. This was a bit of an initial start.”


You clearly had a relation with Dietrich Mateschitz beforehand…

“When he came out with his product, maybe one year after, he helped me doing some events in South America and we became good friends before real sponsorship. He likes motorcycles, is Austrian. He said, when KTM 1989 was in bankruptcy, he was preparing himself to buy it. This was his dream. We did many things together. Once we drove through the desert where he smashed his shoulder and arm so badly.”


It strikes me as really important the way Wings for Life is funded, that everything goes into research?

“He always says him and me, we are the founders, but really it’s him and Red Bull. He keeps the Foundation free of costs completely, and also until today most of the money which comes in comes from Red Bull. Either the guy who wants something from Red Bull has an idea to bring some money in, or they’re doing events where they need some help with some drinks or some famous sports guys. 80 percent of the funding is related to Red Bull.”


It must have taken a long time to reach out to everyone involved?

“First of all I had six months with Hannes in the rehab centre and I was really clear – I saw at least in central Europe if you have such an injury you are not on the street. The government pays the cost for the surgery, for the hospital, the rehab. And then I would say 90 percent receive help from down where they’re living – from their working area or company, from his friends at the music group or sports club. But, even if you buy them a new car or a new bathroom, or a new whatever, he’s sitting in his wheelchair until the end of his life. And throughout Hannes’ accident, I find many projects where there are very promising results in labs and with animals and then I ask, ‘When you’re in the market, why are we not going forward?’ ‘No interest and no money.’ Shit!

“Because the world of medicine, until 40 years ago, everyone who was learning to become a doctor got taught that if the spinal cord is broken or the central nervous system has a problem, it’s dead. Not recovering. But the guy who found out that the cells wanna regrow like the rest of the body, that they want to heal, is Samuel Davis from Canada. And he is also in our advisory group now. This is really strong research and I’m proud to have him with us. At the moment I’d say that this is the strongest point of Wings for Life, that we have really the most clever guys helping us for the selection of the right projects.

“We would have spent money endlessly. For example at the beginning we got offers to support a project with a special nerve electrical system and I said ‘Hey great, let’s do.’ But then if you have guys which are involved in electrical stimulations, they’re telling you ‘Hey, but 10 years ago this was done in California, eight years ago it was done here, what they want to do different?’ And if you don’t find a difference, don’t waste time and money. I would have done it, of course, because I had no idea and in the explanation I thought ‘Wow, this could be the key.’ But if they have nothing different why it should be different results?”


There was clearly quite a lot to overcome in the formative years with funding, changing perceptions – tough for you personally. Did it take a while for you to feel that you were making progress?

“This is one point, yeah. Just three months ago we had a meeting in England with our advisory board. Ten years of Wings for Life, and they explained to me how good we are and all that we’ve achieved, that we’ve not made any mistakes putting money into projects. I then answered ‘Okay, I have to congratulate you guys, but now after 10 years all the guys who are suffering spinal cord injury, not one of them has gotten anything out of Wings for Life. We are still doing more than 83 projects, but 75 are basic research. We are doing endless basic research, which is many years away from clinical studies.

“I got told at the beginning it needs something to soften the scar if you have a chronic spinal cord injury. Then you need some pro factors for the actions. At last, you need something to get the myelination back again and then the therapy to get it started again. And we have at least five to eight projects done from each of those three important points, and many of them are very successful. So I say, ‘I really have to ask you guys now, me as a trained baker, when I have the ingredients together, one day I have to start to put the bread into the oven, otherwise I never find out do I need more water, more salt, more heat. Of course, the first one will be not perfect, but if I’m not doing it, I will never find it out. I know bread is not a human, but if we take the safest out of these five projects…

“Meanwhile there are at least five to eight treatments where we can get mice and rats running again. We can heal 20 rats, but a rat or a mouse is not a human. It is different. And the point is, with all this great and fantastic research, most of the scientists are not going out from their labs. For example we have one from Harvard, Prof Dr Zhigang, who finds a protein that everybody says is the most spectacular thing from the last 10 years in the world of spinal cord injury. But now I say, ‘Zhigang, do you go ahead with what you find, going into next level?’ ‘No, I’m going into find the next project.’ This is frustrating, you know. I say, ‘You guys have to help me find a way. Because without that we are building the basics but we have no idea how the house finally should look.’”


Is it fair to say then that one of the keys for Wings for Life is facilitating the togetherness of these experts, connecting the steps?

“This is an important point, connecting and also that everybody should understand and know what’s going on out there. If you do specific cell therapy, you should know what physiotherapy it needs. Just now, this year looks like an important year because after 10 years we decide that really now we need to find steps forward.

“I mean, it’s clear you cannot go forward if there are no basic instruments, you need to have this. But also recently I was in New York for the Christopher Reeve Foundation presenting a new project they are supporting from the Kentucky University with electro stimulation. In the lower part it puts the whole nervous system a little bit under fire, and they did it with three patients and they can get signals down to the legs from the brain even with a broken spine. They can do some movements but the side effects – and if this is really the case this would be terrific – are they gained a lot of sensibility, bladder control, arm control, and sexuality, so they said almost back to normal. Also the trunk control is much better and they are much more stable. Even if there’s only one of these, it would be incredible.”


So, does it feel like you’re making progress?

“Yes. I mean, I was for a while – I would not say upset because I can see the little steps – like I know one day we will reach our target. But when we founded Wings for Life, Dietrich and me said ‘It will not be tomorrow, it could be five to eight years until we see.’ We know that there is progress, but this is basic progress and this is frustrating, of course. But now we know there are three projects – this Kentucky project, another one in Lausanne, very similar but more precise, and one from a guy in Switzerland who is also called Dr Martin Schwab, who is the godfather of research in spinal cord injury. He found the proteins 12-15 years ago and he has a new treatment now. Very spectacular. He presented this in Salzburg. And these projects, they are already in clinical trials with humans so we will have a result within the next year.

“We are not talking about five years now, we are talking about maybe three years. Even if this is not healing a spinal cord injury, this is a step back to normal. So therefore all the other things are still going ahead and we’re not reducing those, but I’m really pushing now and I want to see a road to our target. I explained to them also that I know it’s difficult and that it’s a very complex area but when the Americans flew to the moon, there was one company, NASA, who said to all the companies around the world, ‘I need from you something that when we are coming back we are not overheating.’ And, ‘I need from you a computer’, ‘I need from you what reaction the body will do without weight’ and so on.

“There are a few things that they had to calculate but they had no experience.”


So you see yourself in a similar situation?

“A little bit yes. We have to say ‘We need this, this, this’ and then we have to find a university or centre who does a study with those things because otherwise they‘re all separate and not coming together.”


What do you believe Wings for Life can achieve?

“First, Wings for Life is just supporting the research, but with the target that one day spinal cord injury does not mean ending up in a wheelchair. That’s clear. And when my brother had his accident, exactly 30 years ago, some friends in our pubs or bars said ‘Hey, I know a guy here or this guy is working on this so maybe they will find something.’ But it was bullshit talking, making you happy. But now, today, the scientists they’re really careful in saying anything too much. Very careful on that. But there’s not one in the whole group that is not sure that we will find a cure. It depends of course on a few things, and nobody tells you that it will take three, five, 10 years because nobody knows it. But everyone is sure.”


You said there’s more to be done and you haven’t reached it yet, but it’s a fantastic endeavour and achievement that is the first really of its kind in a concerted effort for spinal injuries…

“I would also say that we have the right mixture of people within the Foundation. First with Mateschitz and Red Bull, a guy who is really doing a lot. He’s so clever and so focused to make Wings for Life independently living. He says, ‘It makes no sense that each year I’m giving 20 million dollars to you, and next year I’m not there any more and the next guy says, “Okay, we stop” like with the Christopher Reeve Foundation. For example with the Wings for Life World Run, he says we have to do this flat out because we believe in a few years there will be a few hundred thousand running. But he does not allow any of the locations to have any Red Bull banners or branding there at these World Runs. Okay, the drink cans, yes, but not more. With his power, I believe strongly that we will reach our goal. This is clear.

“We have the real clever scientists but this is also not out of danger as they go the same direction as we go but they have different ideas. For example they want to one day have the Nobel prize. They want to have work for the next 15 years, therefore it’s good that we are there because we have another idea about it. I don’t care at the end of the day I just want to have the result that one day we have Hannes and all our friends going out of wheelchairs. Not more, not less.”


Does it make you proud of what’s been achieved in the last 10 years?

“No. I’m proud and happy if we really are able to show progress. I know there’s a lot of things done, but not enough. Not the one we are looking for.”


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