Dr. Richard L. Lieber, a senior research career scientist at the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital in Hines, Ill., has received the 2023 Paul B. Magnuson Award for his work to return functional capacity, mobility, and quality of life to Veterans with physical disabilities. The Magnuson Award recognizes outstanding achievement in VA rehabilitation research.
Lieber is also a professor in the departments of physiology, biomedical engineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the chief scientific officer and senior vice president at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, an organization in Chicago founded by Dr. Paul Magnuson, for whom this award is named.
“Dr. Lieber exemplifies the legacy of Dr. Paul B. Magnuson through his dedication to Veterans in need of rehabilitative approaches and through his team approach and entrepreneurial spirit, which have enabled him to make a real-world impact and help restore patients to their families, jobs, and life,” said Dr. William Wolf, Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital associate chief of staff for research and development.
Since joining the VA in 1982, Lieber’s work has led to several major advances in the field of basic and applied muscle physiology, most notably spinal cord injury (SCI). His work has revolutionized surgical approaches to restoring hand and limb function and enhanced rehabilitative approaches to muscle strengthening, significantly improving outcomes for Veterans with SCI and other conditions, such as stroke and cerebral palsy.
Early in his career, Lieber developed surgical tools to restore arm and hand function in disabled Veterans – his laser diffraction device is now used in operating rooms across the country to optimize surgical muscle transfer in spinal cord-injured patients. As a result of this advance, patients receiving tendon transfers after SCI are now able to move throughout their entire range of motion with approximately twice the strength as could be achieved with previous methods.
While working at the San Diego VA, Lieber and colleagues invented a clinical muscle stimulator for strengthening skeletal muscles to help patients recover from muscle atrophy. Later in his career, Lieber and colleagues developed a checklist of potential donor muscles in the wrist, forearm and hand that quantified the amount of force and excursion each donor muscle could produce. This checklist has been reprinted dozens of times in all major hand surgery textbooks.
Most recently, Lieber’s biological analysis of human muscle biopsies led to the significant discovery that brain injury causing muscle contracture leads to a 70% decrease in muscle stem cell population. This observation has led to new pharmacologic treatments for muscle contracture, which are currently in early feasibility testing.
“Over the course of his distinguished career, Lieber has consistently conducted top-notch research, especially on tetraplegia (paralysis below the neck), that directly benefits our Veterans who have spinal cord injury,” said Dr. Eric G. Neilson, vice president of medical affairs at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “His career-long commitment to Veterans, in addition to his many academic achievements, make him the ideal recipient for the Magnuson Award.”
In his 40-year career, Lieber has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles, many review articles, and 36 book chapters. Other researchers have cited Lieber’s work more than 31,000 times. He also holds five patents on devices for restoring limb strength and function.
Lieber’s other awards include the Barelli Award from the American Society of Biomechanics, the highest biomechanics-related award in the U.S.; the Kappa Delta Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, their highest honor; and a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.
The Magnuson Award honors the life and legacy of surgeon Dr. Paul B. Magnuson, who continuously sought new treatments and devices for his patients as they faced disability. Magnuson understood his duty, not just to cure, but to also restore a patient "to his family, his job, and his life."