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With New Federal Grant, Michael Ellis Aims to Improve Function of Individuals with Stroke

Alumni Spotlight
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Nearly 20 years after earning his Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree from Emory, Michael Ellis, PT, DPT, is leading a project that could revolutionize early rehabilitation care for stroke victims and position him as one of the country’s most influential researchers in the field of physical therapy.

Ellis, who is associate professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, recently landed the prestigious National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant (RO1). The project is titled, “Progressive Abduction Loading Therapy: A Phase IIb Stroke Rehabilitation Trial with Longitudinal Tracking.” An R01 grant is the benchmark federal funding mechanism for clinical and basic science research and is extremely competitive.

Ellis, who later earned his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Emory in 2003 while in Chicago as part of the division’s transitional program, credits Emory DPT for cultivating his passion for clinical research.

“I wouldn’t have gone down this path if it weren’t for Emory’s MPT program,” Ellis says. “I chose Emory over other schools because when I came to the open house, I was asking questions like, ‘What does this curriculum do for teaching or exposing students to clinical research?’ They, by far, had the most well-developed program. I learned so much about the research inquiry process and I was pretty excited about that. I probably would have gone down an entirely different road if I would have chosen another program.”

After leaving Atlanta in 2000 with his MPT degree, Ellis, a native of the Chicago metropolitan area, returned home and landed a position as a physical therapist in an outpatient clinic. A year into the job, he contacted long-time Emory DPT Professor Steven Wolf, PT, PhD, FAPTA to see if Wolf had any Chicago contacts who needed some part-time clinical research assistance. Wolf connected Ellis to some colleagues at the Rehab Institute of Chicago (now called Shirley Ryan AbilityLab).

“It was an impressive recommendation coming from Steve Wolf,” Ellis recalls. “They offered me a position, but they were not interested in a few hours a week here and there; they wanted me full time. So, I quit my outpatient job and I took the full-time position as a research physical therapist at RIC.”

Eighteen months later, Ellis’s boss, Jules Dewald, took a tenure-track teaching position at Northwestern and asked Ellis to join him. Since arriving at Northwestern 17 years ago, Ellis and Dewald have devoted themselves to understanding the neuromechanisms of movement impairments in individuals with stroke as a foundation for the development of new therapies.

“You follow that scientific approach, and, over the years, it begins to pan out and really solidify in terms of the evidence that supports the underlying mechanism of movement impairment,” Ellis says. “It starts to breathe a little bit of life into the possibility for translation to a promising intervention. Anywhere along that road it can fall apart. But what has happened over the last few years is that we’ve established a solid scientific underpinning that explains the movement problem and because of that, we think our new intervention has more potential to be an effective therapy.”

With RO1 funding, Ellis is excited by the opportunity to take years of research to a completely new level.

“We’re going to take our intervention idea, bring it into the inpatient rehabilitation setting and use it to augment conventional inpatient therapy,” Ellis explains. “We’ll test to see two different variations to determine the key ingredient of this therapy. The most exciting part for me is that I’m going to follow the entire cohort for one year and track how these interventions may attenuate the development of specific movement impairments.”

If the five-year study yields the results that the Northwestern team expects, the project will move into the next phase which would be a large scale, multi-site study that examines how the new treatment protocol fares in different environments and cultures and with various dosages. By the end of the process, it’s possible that Ellis will have dedicated his entire professional career working on this single project. The payoff, improving the lives of individuals with stroke, is worth it, he says.

“When you think about how 10 years down the road, it may change the way clinicians are working with this population, it can get you kind of emotional,” Ellis says. “You spend so much time working with them and you see that they have so few options. It gets you fired up and you say, ‘I’m going to keep pushing through and fight to get funding to support this process and make an impact.’”

As his passion and research for improving the lives of stroke victims reaches the national stage, Ellis is proud of the fact that, for him, it all started at the Emory Division of Physical Therapy.

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