21 Oct 2014

A paralysed man walks again

“It is a breakthrough which will result in historic change for disabled people.”

“More impressive than man walking on the moon.”

Big statements, for a potentially enormous medical breakthrough.

In at least one case – for the first time – complete paralysis because of spinal cord damage has been radically reversed by research pioneered  at University College, London, and implemented by surgeons in the Polish city of Wroclaw.

The hope – for 2.5 million paralysed by spinal injury around the world – is obvious and possibly dramatic. But caution is needed. Yes, the results in this one case are nothing less than mind-blowing, but it is very early days and this is a highly specific type of spinal injury.

Today’s news is for all those suffering various forms of paralysis, as well as all those who say the news is always so depressing.

Put simply: a man paralysed when he was stabbed, now walks again because surgeons implanted his nasal cells into his severed spinal chord.

So it is that Darek Fidyka, immobilised in a stab attack in 2010 in Poland, is now walking with the aid of a frame. Not surprisingly, Darek describes it all as “an incredible feeling” and added:

“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.

Remarkable progress

The BBC’s Panorama programme have been tracking his remarkable progress, now published for the first time in the medical journal Cell Transplantation.

The technique hinged upon , well, a hinge. The stabbing had all but severed the spinal chord, leaving just a very thin strip of scar tissue along one edge.

The process involved implanting droplets of cultured regenerative cells taken from the nasal cavity of the patient. These are pathway cells whose job it is to aid regenerative tissues.

They were implanted along with strips of ankle tissue to bridge the gap in the spinal chord along with droplets of the regenerative nasal cells.

It appears to have had remarkable consequences.

After about three months Darek Fidyka began to see one thigh was putting on muscles. At six months he took his first tentative steps using leg braces and parallel bars. After two years he was walking around independently with a frame outside the clinic. Bowel, bladder ,muscle and sexual functions are all returning to him.

‘More impressive than walking on the moon’

Channel 4 News has been speaking to the British medical researcher Prof Geoff Raisman who has led the UK research. He says the development is “more impressive than man walking on the moon”.

The UK Stem Cell Foundation has supported this work alongside the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation, set up by David Nicholls after his son Daniel dived into a wave at Bondi beach in Australia in 2003.

Misjudging the shallowness of the water, Daniel was paralysed from the arms down, during his gap year.

Mr Nicholls says: “I promised Dan that I would not give up until a cure had been found . This news brings us closer than I could have imagined – it is an incredibly important first step.”

The charity has funded the British research to the tune of £1m and then £240,000 for further work with Darek Fidyka in Poland.

Living full lives

There, surgeons and cell transplant specialists say that they could potentially be welcoming more patients from around the world. But they stress that it will be cases where the spinal cord has been cleanly severed – typically by a knife wound – that are most likely to have some chance of success.

Researchers say they now need £10m to roll out a clinic in Poland capable of accepting several possible patients, as a precursor to making the treatment globally available.

It is therefore, just one patient with a highly specific wound-induced disability. Many more will be needed to assess the scale of this, no matter how significant and dramatic in this case the breakthrough has clearly been.

Equally, some disability rights campaign like Tanni Grey-Thompson today were sceptical, saying the drama of walking again should not obscure the fact that people using wheelchairs are living full lives as equals to their walking counterparts.

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