Could the paralyzed walk again?

The paralyzed may one day walk again thanks to groundbreaking research by scientists at UCL’s Spinal Repair Unit. Professor Geoffrey Raisman’s team can already cure rats with spinal cord injuries, restoring their ability to climb, and this autumn they are going to test their treatment on patients for the first time.

Their ‘cure’ relies on cells extracted from the nose, which are then transplanted to the site of the injury in the spinal cord to help the damaged nerves to regenerate. The nasal lining is unique in being the only place in the body where nerve fibers grow throughout our lives, and the transplanted cells appear to confer this ability on the neurons in the spinal cord. The transplanted cells form a bridge across the gap between the two ends of the damaged nerve fibers, creating a pathway the injured nerves can grow along until they reconnect with each other. This restores the original nerve pathway, and allows it to work again.

The team have used this method to repair several different types of spinal cord problems in rats. Rats with spinal cord injuries that prevented them using one of their front paws were soon back to normal after treatment and happily climbing all over the place. The scientists were even able to restore rats’ ability to breathe. Rats with an injury to the nerves that control one side of the diaphragm could no longer breathe properly. But after treatment, the rats were able to breathe with the injured side again.

Raisman is confident the technique will work just as well on humans, and he plans to start testing it out soon, with the first operations set for October. Professor Tom Carlstedt of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, who has years of experience operating on spinal cords, will be the operating surgeon. The first patients will be motorcycle accident victims whose arms are paralysed – a common consequence of such accidents, as the nerves controlling the arms are often wrenched from the spinal cord during the crash.

Raisman says that beyond the risks normally associated with surgery, there is no risk in transplanting the nasal cells to the spinal cord. As the cells come from the patient’s own body, there is no danger of the transplant being rejected.

Thousands of paralysis victims will be watching UCL this autumn to see if their prayers have finally been answered. But it will be no miracle if the treatment succeeds – it comes after more than 20 years of painstaking research by Raisman and his team.

By Davina Bristow

Posted on June 13th, 2006 in Research for a Cure.