The Regenerating Cells That Could Reverse Paralysis

Polish surgeons, in collaboration with British researchers, have pioneered a therapy for victims of paralysis. The key to the breakthrough was to harvest olfactory ensheathing cells from a patient’s brain. The cells are part of the sense of smell, but we have known about them for only 30 years.

These neurons are unlike other central nervous system cells in an important way: They continuously regenerate. When they do regenerate, they reach out fibers called axons to connect to the main olfactory centers of the brain. This is the equivalent of plugging a cable into the body’s network.

The ability to regenerate and reconnect makes olfactory ensheathing cells fascinating candidates for grafting to the site of a spinal cord injury in a paralyzed person. Researchers theorized that the cells could help repopulate a break in the spinal cord and reconnect the broken links in the neural network.

So a little over two years ago in Wrocław, Poland, doctors attempted to repair the spinal cord of a man who had been stabbed in the back and who had lost his ability to walk. He underwent brain surgery to harvest some cells from the olfactory center of his brain, which were then grown in culture and finally injected around the injury, along with some nerve tissue removed from his ankle to bridge the gap.

As the patient healed, his atrophied thigh muscles began to grow. Six months later, he began to walk with the assistance of leg braces, spending several hours a day exercising. Today, he can walk with support.

Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, says: “What we’ve done is establish a principle — nerve fibers can grow back and restore function, provided we give them a bridge. To me, this is more impressive than a man walking on the moon. I believe this is the moment when paralysis can be reversed.”

In a similar development for spinal cord breaks, two days ago Asterias Biotherapeutics treated the first patient in its Phase 1/2 trial using proprietary stem cells to restore mobility in patients who have recently suffered complete spinal cord breaks. The patients in the study are paralyzed below the break in their C-5 to C-7 neck vertebrae.  Asterias researchers hope the stem cells will bridge the gap in the spinal cord and ameliorate much of the paralysis.

To a bright future,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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