New hope has been given to paralysed people following the remarkable story of a Polish fireman, whose spinal cord had been completely severed following a knife attack.
Surgeons at the Wroclaw University Hospital, Poland carried out a pioneering cell transplant using olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) taken from Darek Fidyka’s brain. The cells, which are living adult cells rather than stem cells, were taken from the left olfactory bulb of Fidyka’s brain and cultured. Strips of ankle nerve tissue were used as a scaffold along which the nerves could grow and the cultured OECs were carefully transplanted into the spinal breach.
Eighteen months later, Fidyka was able to partially move his lower limbs and sensation was beginning to return to his legs; muscle was growing on his left thigh and he had regained some bladder sensation. The fireman who had been struck down with a class A spinal injury had moved along the spectrum of disability to a class C injury.
But this is not an overnight success story. The research into reverse paralysis surgery using special cells has been ongoing since 1985 when OECs were first discovered by scientists in the UK.
OECs are not stem cells, but living adult cells whose function it is to encourage the growth of nerve cells in the nasal passages and it’s this capacity to effect repairs to the human nervous system that it is hoped can be exploited in the future.
Scientists are at pains to stress that we are a long way from a cure. Fidyka is the lucky one and his recovery could be down to a number of different factors. His spinal cord was cut cleanly, making it easier for the growing nerve cells to bridge the 8mm gap. Patients with more complex injuries might not be as treatable. A set of fully controlled trials will be needed to replicate the results in a wide range of patients with differing degrees of injury before it can be fully established that this result is not just a unique stroke of good fortune.
This is indeed a remarkable story which gives hope to many thousands of paralysed people and the results of ongoing trials are awaited with great interest. With 3D printers now able to ‘print’ human tissue, we might even be able to replicate OECs successfully in the future and paralysis could become a thing of the past.
Image credit: Guardian