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Scientists use nose cells to help paralyzed man walk again

October 27, 2014

Scientists used olfactory cells to help a paralyzed man walk again.Those in physical therapy technology programs may be interested in a story about Darek Fidyka, the first man to receive a groundbreaking treatment that allowed him to walk again after experiencing a paralyzing stab wound. The procedure involved taking cells from Fidyka’s nasal cavity and creating a bridge over the injury site in his spine. According to Medical News Today, the Bulgarian man has been improving more than expected, and has seen new levels of independence as he is now able to drive as well. BBC notes that the lack of financial incentives in the pharmaceuticals industry may be responsible for the lack of investment in this area.

Fidyka’s journey

Mr. Fidyka was attacked in 2010 by his partner’s ex-husband, sustaining a stab wound to the back that left him paralyzed from the chest down. However, since his attack, Fidyka had shown extreme determination to recover from the injury. According to BBC, Fidyka has spent the past two years enduring five hours of physiotherapy a day for five days each week. Based on his work ethic and drive, he seemed the perfect recipient of the experimental nose cell transplant.

He told BBC, “I knew it would be difficult, and it would last long – but I always shut out the thought that I could be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, so I was always set to fight hard.”2

Fidyka has spent almost two years in a Polish hospital receiving treatment, and it is estimated to take up to two more years for the patient to see full benefits of the procedure. Scientists theorized that Fidyka’s success is partly due to the clean-cut nature of his wound.1 Overall, the success of this procedure gives hopes to millions of people worldwide who have suffered paralyzing spinal injuries.

The procedure

The breakthrough builds on the life’s work of Dr. Geoffrey Raisman, a University College London professor in the Institute of Neurology. After decades of research on spinal cord regeneration, Raisman has much to show for his work. He theorized that olfactory cells would work for the procedure due to their regenerative ability. According to BBC, he proved that olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) could reverse paralysis when transplanted in rats. His successful animal studies and corresponding publications attracted attention around the globe, including that of Dr. Pawel Tabakow.

Tabakow wanted to make the leap from animal testing to humans, and invited Raisman to join his team at Wroclaw Medical University in Poland. In 2013, the team transplanted OECs in three paraplegic patients that showed promise of improvement.Tabakow then planned to the procedure of Fidyka. Beforehand, Tabakow mandated that his patient undergo months of grueling physiotherapy, to find if there was a chance that he could recover without the treatment. When that was ruled out, they went to work on the procedure.

For Fidyka’s procedure, the neuroscientist had to enter the skull and remove one. A second surgery transplanted the cells to the damaged area of the spinal cord. Fidyka continues to undergo physiotherapy and it will be some time before scientists can determine the long-term effectiveness of this treatment. Tabakow is currently working to develop a less invasive process of removing olfactory bulbs, according to BBC.2

It’s imperative to remember that this is just the first step, not only for Fidyka, but also for the millions of patients with spinal cord injuries. While using OECs in the procedure shows amazing promise, one patient is not enough to determine if it will work for others.

“To walk again – the people behind the story,” by Fergus Walsh, BBC News, October 20, 2014.

“Paralyzed man walks again after nose cells repair his spinal cord,” by Catharine Paddock, Medical News Today, October 21, 2014.


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