Spinal cord injuries are generally regarded as impossible to recover from. The spinal cord is responsible for connecting the brain to most of the body, providing the pathways through which the brain sends signals to the muscles in the arms, legs, and other areas, and receives information from these areas—touch sensations, when a person feels something on the skin. When the spinal cord is injured, these communications are disrupted, and the brain can not communicate as effectively—or at all—with these areas. There are 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury every year in the United States, generally from automobile accidents, falls, violence, and sports injuries, and most result in permanent paralysis and sensory problems.
Now researchers have found a way to help recovery, and have successfully saved at least one patient’s spine. The researchers used olfactory stem cells to regenerate damaged tissue. The cells were taken from the scent receptors in the nose, an area in which cells are regularly damaged and regularly repaired by the body. Because of this, the tissue could be removed from the olfactory bulb and would be regenerated as part of the ordinary repair process; it also meant that thee cells, which are designed to regenerate and which, being stem cells, are not locked into any specific function, could grow new spinal cord tissue when used there. Though none of the patients in which this was tried made a complete recovery, all three experimental subjects showed a significant degree of recovery and gained back at least some of the lost function.
The most successful procedure was done in a Bulgarian man named Darek Fidyka, who’d had his spinal cord entirely severed in a knife attack, and became completely paralyzed from the chest down. As a result of his injuries, he’d been unable to move or feel anything below his rib cage. Fidyka was the most severely injured of the three patients in the study, and according to doctors, he is believed to be the first person ever to recover from such an injury. From total paralysis, he has recovered to the point that he can walk, with the help of a walker, and drive a car.