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Nasal cells bring major breakthrough for spinal cord injuries

Written By | Oct 21, 2014

VIRGINIA, October 21, 2014 — Thanks to transplanted cells from his nasal cavity, Darek Fidyka can walk again.

Using a frame for support, Fidyka excitedly exclaimed walking again “is an incredible feeling. When you can’t feel almost half of your body, you are helpless but when it starts coming back, it’s like you were born again.”

Fidyka was a paraplegic whose spinal cord was severed by a knife-wielding attacker in 2007. Doctors said there was no chance of recovery.

That prognosis changed after surgeons in Poland, collaborating with British scientists, determined olfactory cells in the nasal cavity are the are the only cells in the body that die off  and regenerate daily, prompting them to consider using those cells to regenerate the spinal cord.

Research team leader Professor Geoff Raisman, chair of the neuron regeneration at the Institute of Neurology, told the BBC that the discovery was “More impressive than man walking on the moon” adding ‘I’ve been waiting 40 years for something like this.”

Dr. Pawel Tabakow, the neurosurgeon who led the research team at Wroclaw University Hospital, said “it’s amazing to see how regeneration of the spinal cord, something that was thought to be impossible for many years, is becoming a reality.”

Olfactory ensheating cells (OEC) form part of the sense of smell, act as pathway cells which enable nerve fibers in the olfactory system to be perpetually renewed. Each time we breath, molecules that transmit different odors come in contact with nerves cells in the nose and are continually damaged and replaced.

OEC’s carry messages to our olfactory bulbs which lie at the very top of our nasal cavity and sit at the base of the brain. Regeneration of damaged cells is made possible by OEC’s which re-creat pathways for damaged cells to grow back. Because the stem cells come directly from the individual receiving the transplant, there is virtually no chance of rejection.

Doctors first removed one of Fidyka’s olfactory bulbs and grew OEC’s in a culture. The team then introduced those cells through 100 micro-injections above and below Fidyka’s area of severance.

The team placed four thin strips of tissue from Fidyka’s ankle across an 8 mm or 0.3 inch gap on the left side of the spinal cord. The OEC’s provided a pathway for new cell fibers above and below the injury to reconnect. The grafts bridged the gap in the cord.

Approximately three months after the surgery, Fidyka noticed that his left thigh was putting on muscle from his five hour, five day a week physical therapy. Two years later, he can now walk outside the rehabilitation clinic.

Fidyka has recovered some sexual and bowel function as well. MRI’s show the gap in the spinal cord has closed since the surgery.

The ground breaking research and surgery was supported by the Nichols Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF) and the UK Stem Cell Foundation and was spearheaded by NSIF chief David Nicholls after his son Daniel was paralyzed from his arms down in a swimming accident.

Nicholls said “Dan had an accident and I made him a promise that one day, he would walk again.”

The scientific team hopes to treat 10 more patients in Poland and Britain in coming years. The team does not wish to profit from their efforts, and wants to expand research to other countries.  Dr. Tabakow said, “Our team in Poland would be prepared to consider patients from anywhere in the world who are suitable for this therapy.”

Dr. Richard Sykes, chair of the UK stem Cell Foundation, said “to fully develop future treatments that benefit the 3 million paralyzed globally will need continued investment for wide scale clinical trials.”

None of those involved wish to profit from this breakthrough therapy and Professor Raisman said “it would be my proudest boast if I could say that no patient had to pay one penny for any of the information we have found.”


Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist

Paul Mountjoy

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.