PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Paula C. Bickford, PhD
Professor, Department of Neurosurgery, Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, University of South Florida; Senior Research Career Scientist, James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa
For Paula Bickford, it started in the basement of her childhood home in Weston, Mass.
“I was always curious about taking things apart and how they fit back together,” Bickford said as she recalled tinkering in the basement with her father, an electrical engineer. “That may have influenced my development of scientific curiosity,” which fueled an early interest in embryology and how two cells coming together could create a human being. But that fascination eventually swung “to the other end of the spectrum,” Bickford said, and now she studies “how things fall apart.”
That lighthearted comparison belies the ground-breaking research that Bickford has contributed in the field of neurodegenerative diseases and the effects of aging on the brain. As professor in the University of South Florida’s Department of Neurosurgery, Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, and as the senior research career scientist at the James A. Haley Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tampa, Bickford’s reputation for finding therapies for brain disease has gone global. She just assumed presidency of the American Society for Neural Therapy and Repair (ASNTR), an international organization that raises awareness about the modalities of neurotherapy and repair.
“Dr. Bickford’s early and ongoing research into the potential benefits of antioxidants for protection against neural cell degeneration in both aging and disease, provide her with a unique perspective to lead ASNTR,” said John Sladek, PhD, professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-founder of the ASNTR.
Even before Bickford came to USF in 2001, she had established herself as an innovative researcher. After earning her PhD in Pharmacology at the University of Colorado in 1984, Bickford embarked on a career that has been broad in scope and placed her ahead of the curve on several fronts in neurogenesis. Her research more than a decade ago about using antioxidants to protect against neural cell degeneration in aging and disease is now accepted. Then Bickford began to focus the effects of inflammation on brain disease, and now that knowledge is used routinely in developing treatment protocols.
Now Bickford is starting to look at the culmination of all those together and, in concert with nutrition and diet, how they may impact stem cell mechanisms in brain repair.
“We were the first to show that foods like blueberries or spirulina promoted regeneration and acted as neuroprotective agents” for the brain, she said. “We have shown they can improve memory in aged rats, and help promote recovery in models of stroke and Parkinson's disease.”
“I’m not always at the very front, but I try to be,” she said. “When (research) finally makes it to the clinics (for trials), and it changes how we think about a disease and the way we improve regenerative medicine,” she said, “that is very rewarding.”
“The reason we do it is discovery. No one could this job if they didn’t like it. A lot of times it is uneventful, but then we get one of those now-it-makes-sense moments ... USF really is a major player in this field.”
Bickford and several colleagues at USF “have developed a patented formulation of blueberries, green tea, carnosine and Vitamin D3 that promotes the health of stem cells in the body, which are the building blocks of repair.” The company, Natura Therapeutics, “is a spinout that was started in our USF incubator” and “we are making the product and licensing it to other companies that use nutraceuticals,” she said.
At the Haley VA Hospital, one of the busiest in the nation, Bickford is trying to increase the time she spends interacting with clinicians. “It’s hugely important work,” Bickford said, because many brain-injured veterans are treated there.
Bickford recently used her expertise in alternative medicine to write a grant to look at ways to use diet, exercise and meditation to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. Doing so may enable her to integrate a facet of her personal life with her scientific career.
Bickford is director of the Shambhala Meditation Center in St. Petersburg. A Buddhist for 20 years, the 55-year-old said she meditates to “focus and stabilize your mind so that you are proactive and not reacting. It helps you cope with life’s ups and down, and stay stable and sane.” Her most memorable vacation was to Bodhgaya, India, “where the Buddha attained enlightenment,” Bickford said. She hopes future travels will include Nepal and Tibet.
Bickford lives in Ruskin with her husband of three years, Will Ryken, whom she met in a meditation group. He is retired from a previous career, but now spends his time teaching meditation “in Tampa and St. Pete,” but also as far away as San Francisco and France.
“We have two dogs (Yoda and Spud) and spoil them terribly,” she said. When she has time, Bickford loves to kayak at St. Pete Beach or nearby rivers, and try to keep up with the landscaping on their one-acre property. “The gardens work me” more than she works in the garden, she joked.
The third of four children born to Sally and Bill Bickford, she remains very close to her immediate family. Her mother died last year and her two sisters have moved in with their dad to help out. “I call four or five times a week,” she said.
Bickford credits still another family member with helping illuminate her career path.
When she was in graduate school she started learning about aging at about the same time she learned her grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. “It made my studies even more personal,’’ she said. “I think that is true for a lot of people in research. It definitely makes it more real when these diseases have an impact on our lives, our friends and families.”