Paralysed man walks again after cell transplant

On the move: Darek Fidyka walking again after four years of paralysis.

The patient’s spinal cord was severed four years ago, but a Polish-British medical team has let him walk again after groundbreaking surgery. Is this a new dawn in restoring damaged lives?

This is a medical breakthrough ‘more impressive than man walking on the moon’, according to one British neuroscientist. A paralysed Polish man, unable to move for years, has taken his first tentative steps after undergoing pioneering cell regrowth therapy.

Darek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down after being stabbed in the back in a knife attack four years ago. The incident left the 40-year-old confined to a wheelchair and doctors gave him a less than one per cent chance of even the slightest recovery.

Yet thanks to a team of surgeons in Poland and scientists at University College London, Fidyka can now walk using a frame.

Remarkably, the treatment used Fidyka’s own cells to heal him. Nearly 30 years ago scientists proved that specialist cells known as olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), found in the lining of the nose and in that part of the nervous system where our sense of smell resides, can help repair damaged nasal nerves that transmit smell signals to the brain.

Scientists injected some of his own OECs into the 8mm gap left in Fidyka’s spinal cord as a result of the attack. The cells slowly restored the nerve fibre connections between both sides of the injury. First feeling returned and then movement in his legs.

The treatment is a world first, and has transformed Fidyka's life. ‘When you can't feel almost half your body, you are helpless,' he said. 'But when it starts coming back it's like being born again.’

However, despite this impressive success, scientists are keen not to raise false hopes. The technique must be repeated in controlled clinical trials with other patients to prove decisively whether it can stimulate spinal cord regeneration.

Spine-tingling

This is an amazing achievement, some say, because it was assumed for many years that the regeneration of the spinal cord was impossible. Even more heartening is the knowledge that none of those involved in the research want to profit financially by it. They hope to make the technique freely available to those disabled by spinal cord injuries. This is a triumph for science, human ingenuity and compassion.

But others say that it may take many years for further trials and substantial amounts of funding to establish if this marks a new era in the treatment of paralysis. This is the culmination of 40 years of research, so far funded by charities. Using a patient’s own cells as a treatment means there is no profit for the pharmaceutical industry and therefore little commercial interest. While this is an incredible breakthrough for medicine, it might have happened sooner if more funding had been available from big firms or if governments were able to encourage such research.

You Decide

  1. Is this cell transplant treatment more impressive than man walking on the moon?
  2. ‘Market-driven healthcare is incentivised to keep us sick.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Draw a simple diagram to explain the science behind this story.
  2. Using ‘Become an expert’ as a starting point, research another important medical breakthrough and write a presentation outlining its effects on humanity.

Some People Say...

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.’Christopher Reeve”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this important?
While some patients with partial spinal injury have made remarkable recoveries, a complete break — like that experienced by Fidyka — was until now assumed to be beyond repair. There are three million paralysed people in the world and it is hoped that, if the funding can be raised for further trials, many more could have their lives transformed by this technique.
How common are spinal injuries in the UK?
There are thought to be approximately 40,000 people in the UK living with paralysis, and a person in Britain suffers a serious spinal injury once every eight minutes. Many occur as a result of traffic accidents, sporting accidents and falls, and the devastating consequences of not being able to move leaves many people clinically depressed.

Word Watch

Repair
The complex neural circuitry responsible for our sense of smell is the only part of the nervous system that regenerates itself throughout adult life.
Technique
The charity behind the research, the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF), has said that, should any patents arise from this treatment, it would acquire them so as to make the technique as widely and freely available as possible.
Charities
The research was supported by the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) and the UK Stem Cell Foundation. NSIF was set up by chef David Nicholls after his son Daniel was paralysed from the arms down after a swimming accident in 2003.

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