Not many people, not even Formula One fans, know that F1’s greatest gift to society at large could turn out to be medical, scientific and technological advances in brain and spine medicine.
According to Brad Spurgeon of The International New York Times, decades of research by the International Automobile Federation (FIA), F1’s governing body, have led to safety requirements that have saved many lives.
However, Sturgeon said, most recent deaths in motor sports have resulted from head injuries to drivers exposed to open cockpits. F1 is still reeling from the death in July of French driver Jules Bianchi nine months after his head was injured in an accident at the Japanese Grand Prix; Justin Wilson, who died of head injuries after a crash in the IndyCar series in August; in 2011, and another IndyCar driver, Dan Wheeldon, also died of head injuries.
With auto racing, particularly F1, being increasingly scrutinized because of head injuries linked to the absence of adequate measures, in 2010 Jean Todt, then Ferrari’s team principal and now the FIA president, tapped Dr. Gerard Saillant, an orthopedic surgeon and trauma specialist, to help him start a foundation for trauma research, Sturgeon recalled.
The result was the Brain and Spine Institute, a Paris-based research center headed by Saillant as founding president who is now head of the FIA’s medical commission. Salliant told Sturgeon that a horrible irony was that the seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher, who suffered a serious brain injury in a ski accident in 2013, was a founder and the second largest donor of the ICM (Institut de Cerveau et de la Moelle Epiniere).
Interviewed by Sturgeon, Salliant said that, “trauma medicine is like Formula One, the problems of the chassis, body, the aerodynamics – it’s orthopedic. It’s complicated, but it’s fixable.” Todt, Salliant and two neurosurgeons founded the ICM, raising nearly $113 million to start it.
Now housed in a six-story building they built, the Institute brings together researchers, patients, doctors and business people to study such things as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and trauma. It has 150 people involved in a medical start-up department, seeking new products for patients.
Salliant told Sturgeon that the future of neurology is coming through nanotechnology, computers and biostatistics. “The future is in big data and the new technologies, not only the researcher with his test tube.” To prove his point, Salliant noted that at one point in F1, there were many spine injuries and they solved that problem mostly with the HANS neck device. “That was solved not by the doctors. It was the bio-mechanists, the engineers,” he said.
There have also been breakthroughs in treatments for multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
The ICM’s annual operating budget is 55 million euros, half of which comes from French public funds, and part of the other half from fund-raising and industrial contracts through research projects in partnership with pharmaceutical firms like Sanofi and Pfizer or with technology companies. The FIA and Todt remain among the ICM’s donors.
As a reminder of where it all came from, Sturgeon said there is a large model of a Ferrari racing car in Salliant’s office and a giant photo of Schumacher, who gave a lot of money and did not want to announce it.