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After a senseless attack left former fireman Darek Fidyka paralyzed from the waist down in 2010, he never thought he would be able to stand up again. But thanks to a revolutionary technique, the 38-year-old Polish man has become the first person in the world to regain use of his legs, following a traumatic spinal cord injury.
The biggest issue with treating spinal cord wounds is that cells in the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and sensory nerves, typically do not regenerate; therefore, when damage is inflicted to any of these areas, the chances of recovery are usually less than 1%.
Geoffrey Raisman, a professor at London's Institute of Neurology and University College has been trying to find a way to repair spinal cord injuries for the last forty years. In 1985, the scientist finally had a breakthrough. He discovered that olfactory ensheathing nerve cells (OEC's), which reside inside the human nasal cavity are constantly regenerating. What was even more exciting is that in laboratory experiments on rats and dogs, the OECs were able to reconnect damaged nerves in the animals’ nervous systems, allowing them to regain their mobility.
In 2005, the scientist teamed up with some Polish neurosurgeons to see if the procedure could be duplicated in humans. Over the years, the technique has been used in a few select patients, but Fidyka is the first to show substantial improvement. The researchers suspect that it is because his spinal cord cut was relatively clean, with only an 8mm gap that needed to be repaired.
In order to get a supply of OEC's cells, Dr. Paweł Tabakow began by extracting Fidyka's olfactory bulb which houses a ready supply. The obtained cells were first cultivated in the laboratory and then injected in areas above and below the damaged spinal cord. In order to channel the cell growth in the right direction, the surgeons created a boundary, by placing four strips of ankle nerves around the injury.
Though it has taken about two years, Fidyka's spine is showing signs of healing remarkably well. The former fireman who has regained muscle mass on his left thigh can now partially move his lower limbs and feel sensation in both legs.
While Fidyka's recovery is encouraging, there is still more research that needs to be done to definitively prove that the technique works. Raisman, who published the results of the study in the scientific journal, Cell Transplantation on October 20th, is now trying to raise funds so that he can conduct similar surgeries on ten other patients and monitor their progress in a controlled clinic environment. His ultimate goal is to “develop the procedure to a point where it can be rolled out as a worldwide general approach”, so that the three million paralyzed people all over the world may someday soon, have a chance to walk again.
If the treatment is effective, some scientists think that the breakthrough has potential beyond just spinal repair. They believe that it could even help people suffering from other ailments like heart and Parkinson's disease, which are caused by cell deterioration and death. Who would have believed that nose cells would come in so handy?
Resources: bbc.com,ocanada.com, telegraph.co.uk,washingtonpost.com