Groundbreaking stem cell based therapy allowed a paralyzed man to take his first steps in over four years last week. The groundbreaking treatment was pioneered by Professor Geoffrey Raisman of University College London and his team of fellow scientists.
Darek Fidyka, a 40 year-old man from Poland, was paralyzed from the chest down after a knife attack in 2010. He took his first steps, assisted with a walker, this past week.
Raisman and his team collected two types of cells from the nasal cavity: olfactory ensheathing cells and olfactory nerve fibroblasts. These cells can promote the regeneration of nerve fibers, and they represent the only part of the nervous system capable of doing so during adulthood. For decades, scientists have tried to simulate this regeneration process in other areas, such as the spinal cord.
“But there are two problems–crash barriers, which are scars, and a great big hole in the road,” Rasiman continued. “In order for the nerve fibres to express that ability they’ve always had to repair themselves, first the scar has to be opened up, and then you have to provide a channel that will lead them where they need to go.”
The team injected about 500,000 nerve cells into Fidyka’s spinal cord, paving a pathway around the spinal cord injury. They then placed four strips of nerve tissue across the gap the knife wound created in the spinal cord, creating a bridge to reconnect the nerves.
“Nerve fibres can grow back and restore function, provided we give them a bridge. I believe this is the moment when paralysis can be reversed,” Raisman told the BBC in an exclusive interview.
However, this does not mean that paralysis has been cured. Three other paralysis patients have also been tested, but there has been no sign of significant improvement.
“This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans–that could still be a long way off,” Raisman said, “But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road towards it… The much harder range of higher functions lost in spinal cord injury are yet more complicated and still a long way away.”
Raisman has been are careful not to raise false hopes for identical outcomes in the future. However, this stem-cell therapy breakthrough proves enormous implications for the future of stem-cell based treatments.
It has been two years after the treatment, and Fidyka is now able to walk with a frame. He has even recovered bladder and urinary sensation.
“When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it’s as if you were born again,” Fidyka said about his newfound movement. “What I have learned is that you must never give up but keep fighting, because some door will open in life.”