Saturday, March 13, 2004

Treatment Could Help Paralysis Patients

Atlanta Will be Home to New Procedure
By: Diana Davis, Health Reporter

ATLANTA -- In what could be a major breakthrough, a metro Atlanta research center is embarking on a new research project that, when complete, could help restore movement to some paralysis patents.

The Shepherd Center, a non-profit specialty hospital in Atlanta that works with patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and other neuromuscular illnesses and urological problems, has announced the start of a $3.2 million, grant-funded effort that includes the construction of a cell processing center.

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The initiative is being underwritten by a grant from the Marcus Foundation, and early results from the procedure appear promising.
The cell processing center will allow doctors to extract cells from an injured patient's own body before they are injected back into the person's spinal cord.

Doctors say movement has returned to about 30 percent of paralysis patients who have undergone the procedure.

Meet Jason Richardson

Eight months ago, Jason Richardson was paralyzed from his chest down after suffering a diving accident.

'I was told about the procedure six days after my injury,' he said.

Some 10 days later, Richardson was in an operating room in a hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel and became one of the first patients in the world to have the groundbreaking procedure. During the surgery, specially processed cells from his body were injected back into his spine.

He said the sensations he thought he had lost forever returned within days after the surgery.

"Once you've had that taken away from you, words can't explain how important it is when it come back," Richardson said.

While 30 percent of patients like Richardson have shown improvements after the treatment, the number drops to between 2 and 5 percent for people who don't have the new procedure.

Richardson was told he would likely never be able to move his hands or arms. Now, however, he can.

The procedure developed in Israel is coming to Atlanta. During a press conference to announce the grant from the Marcus Foundation, researchers said the procedure works by essentially tricking the body's nerve cells to regenerate.

Doctors say the method is a milestone that represents a huge advance because the patient's own specially processed blood and skin cells fuel the recovery.

"They go in and clean up some of the debris (and) some of the dead tissue but it's also thought that they help release what's called a nerve growth factor (which) promotes the actual growth of new tissue," said Mike Jones, a vice president at the Shepherd Center.

Doctors say they are cautiously optimistic about the benefits that could occur. And yet, Richardson said it's hard to fathom the improvements he has made.

"It's no where near real to me yet," he said.

Doctors say the new treatment is only effective in patients whose injuries are recent. The procedure should occur within 10 days after the injury.

Researchers say the difficult task now is to make sure that doctors and local hospitals are aware of the procedure so that patients can get treated in time.