Many of us remember the heartbreaking news of the tragic horse riding accident, in 1995, that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed from the neck down.
He was at the peak of his career, having starred as Superman in four hit movies. His work in Hollywood didn’t end completely, but it was drastically curtailed due to his injury.
He was optimistic that researchers would someday discover a treatment for spinal injuries. He believed that embryonic stem cells were the answer to a cure and lobbied the U.S. Congress to make legal their use in research. He died in 2004, unable to achieve that goal.
FAST FORWARD TO 2015
Two separate research teams in two different parts of the world are simultaneously working on treatments for spinal injuries. These two teams are not connected. They are not collaborating. And yet the two teams may have each discovered different halves of the future treatment for spinal injuries.
A NEW DRUG THERAPY
A group of U.S. scientists have developed a drug that can encourage nerves in the spinal cord to grow.
This drug concentrates on interfering with a natural reaction that occurs when the nerve cells are injured. Normally, when the spinal cord is damaged sugary proteins are released at the site of the injury, creating a sticky goo. The long spindly part of the nerve – the axon – gets trapped in this goo when it tries to cross the site of the injury.
The researchers used rats with spinal cord injuries in their study. These rats were injected with a chemical under the skin at the site of their injury. The drug works by disrupting the formation of the “sticky goo” which prevents nerve cells from growing after the injury. Lab tests resulted in 21 out of 26 rats showing some degree of recovery either in their ability to move or in bladder function.
“It was amazing – the axons kept growing and growing,” said lead researcher Professor Jerry Silver. “What we could see was really remarkable. Some recovered to a fantastic extent and so well you could hardly tell there was an injury. But, further testing in larger animals is needed before human trials can take place.”
Professor Silver expects that future therapy, resulting from this research, would most likely be used in conjunction with other treatments that are now being pioneered, such as nerve transplants and electrical stimulation.
Dr. Lyn Jakeman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said: “There are currently no drug therapies available that improve the very limited natural recovery from spinal cord injuries that patients experience. This is a great step towards identifying a novel agent for helping people to recover.”
This study was published in the journal, Nature.
A NEW CELL THERAPY
Darek Fidyka, 40, from Poland, was paralyzed from the chest down after being stabbed repeatedly in the back in a 2010 attack. He’s been confined to a wheel chair since that time. Recently a research team from the Institute of Neurology at the University College of London, tried an experimental treatment on Mr. Fidyka that shows real promise.
The treatment uses olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs). Olfactory glands are the only nerves in the human body that regrow and its the OECs that act as pathway cells, enabling nerve fibres in the olfactory system to be continually renewed.
Their experimental treatment involved two main procedures. In the first procedure, surgeons removed one of the patient’s olfactory bulbs and grew the cells in a culture for two weeks.
The second procedure, two weeks later, was more involved. In this step, they transplanted the cultured OECs into the spinal cord. They only had a drop-size (about 500,000 cells) of material to work with, and yet, they were able to make about 100 micro injections of these OECs just above and below the injury.
In addition to the injections, four thin strips of nerve tissue, were taken from the patient’s own ankle and placed across the 8mm (0.3in) gap on the left side of the cord (a narrow strip of nerve tissue on the right side had survived the knife attack and was still connected).
The scientists believed the OECs would provide a pathway to enable fibres above and below the injury to reconnect, using the nerve grafts to bridge the gap in the cord.
Today, Mr. Fidyka is walking again. He has to use a support frame, but he is thrilled with the outcome. He says, “It’s an incredible feeling. When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s like you were born again.”
Professor Raisman, Chair of Neural Regeneration, led the team in the U.K. He said this is “more impressive than man walking on the moon.” Professor Wagih El Masri, Consultant and Spinal Injuries Surgeon remarked, “I have waited about 40 years for a moment like this and I am hopeful that this moment will be repeated and confirmed independently” Their research was published in the journal “Cell Transplantation”.
Unfortunately, Christopher Reeve died in 2004. The preliminary results of both of these studies would have been great news to him, maybe even hope for his condition. Ironically, his much touted embryonic stem cells were not part of either of these treatments. But somehow I think Superman would have approved.