Here is recent news of an approach to spinal injury that has produced benefits in one patient. It is worth tempering optimism until larger trials are attempted, however, as nerve regeneration has proven to be highly variable between individuals. The published paper on the results is open access, but very slow to load at the moment.
A paralysed man has been able to walk again after a pioneering therapy that involved transplanting cells from his nasal cavity into his spinal cord. Darek Fidyka, who was paralysed from the chest down in a knife attack in 2010, can now walk using a frame. The treatment used olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) - specialist cells that form part of the sense of smell. OECs act as pathway cells that enable nerve fibres in the olfactory system to be continually renewed. In the first of two operations, surgeons removed one of the patient's olfactory bulbs and grew the cells in culture. Two weeks later they transplanted the OECs into the spinal cord, which had been cut through in the knife attack apart from a thin strip of scar tissue on the right.
They had just a drop of material to work with - about 500,000 cells. About 100 micro-injections of OECs were made above and below the injury. Four thin strips of nerve tissue were taken from the patient's ankle and placed across an 8mm (0.3in) gap on the left side of the cord. The scientists believe the OECs provided a pathway to enable fibres above and below the injury to reconnect, using the nerve grafts to bridge the gap in the cord.
Before the treatment, Mr Fidyka had been paralysed for nearly two years and had shown no sign of recovery despite many months of intensive physiotherapy. Mr Fidyka first noticed that the treatment had been successful after about three months, when his left thigh began putting on muscle. Six months after surgery, Mr Fidyka was able to take his first tentative steps along parallel bars, using leg braces and the support of a physiotherapist. Two years after the treatment, he can now walk outside the rehabilitation centre using a frame. He has also recovered some bladder and bowel sensation and sexual function.