Man Paralyzed by Spinal Cord Injury Walks Again After Groundbreaking Surgery

A British man paralyzed from the chest down in a knife attack two years ago has regained the ability to walk after an experimental treatment in which doctors transplanted cells from one of his olfactory bulbs into his spinal cord.

Olfactory sheathing cells (OEC) and enable the sense of smell. Since olfactory cells, which part of the nervous system, are constantly being damaged and replaced, the olfactory system is the only nervous system in the body that constantly regenerates itself throughout life. Doctors harnessed this regenerative ability to help the man regain his ability to walk.

Surgeons performed two separate operations. First, they removed one of the patient’s two olfactory bulbs and used it to grow more olfactory ensheathing cells in a culture. After two weeks, they transplanted some of the new OECs into the man’s spinal cord. They then made about 100 micro-injections of OECs just above and below the damaged area of his spine. In a second surgery, doctors took four small strips of nerve tissue from the man’s ankle and placed them across the gap in his spinal cord. The graft provided a bridge across the gap in the spinal cord for the OEC regrowth to follow.

Prior to the operation, the patient had undergone intensive physiotherapy for two years but made no progress towards getting his leg function back. But three months after the experimental surgery, he noticed more muscle growth in this left thigh. Six months after the operation, he took several steps on his own between parallel bars, with help from a physical therapist and supported by leg braces. He has also gotten back some of his bladder and bowel sensations and sexual function.

Using the man’s own cells eliminated the possibility his body would reject the transplanted cells. MRIs done on the patient’s spine indicate the gap in his spinal cord has closed since the treatment.

The landmark research that led to the successful operation was supported by the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) and the UK Stem Cell Foundation. None of the researchers or institutions involved in the pioneering research want to profit from it, and NSIF says it would acquire any patents that might come out of the research so they can make the surgery technique freely available to all who need it.

Until this groundbreaking surgery yielded these results, spinal cord regeneration was thought to be impossible.

Source: Paralysed man walks again after cell transplant, BBC.com Health News, October 20, 2013

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