In a recent study, six people suffering from spinal cord injuries that left them completely paralyzed and without motor function below the site of injury were treated with a new cell therapy. And, according to this new study, of those six people, four have so far recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side of their body. That is an impressive 67% recovery rate, a number that is typically unattainable for patients suffering from severe paralysis, in fact, it is roughly double the typical recovery rate for similar patients.
Within the study, the patients had 10 million of the studied cells injected surgically and, according to Dr. Richard G. Fessler, lead investigator of the study of AST-OPC1 nerve cells and professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “Having worked on this research for more than 20 years, and given that we hadn’t seen any significant improvement before, these results are beyond anything I would have hoped for in the study.”
Fessler continued, “Normally with a spinal cord injury, a person will improve for a month or two, but that’s it. We are 12 months out and we are continuing to see improvements in patients who receive the treatment. That’s vastly better than anything we’ve ever seen before…This is a meaningful improvement for a patient who is paralyzed in the neck. The patient goes from not being able to use his or her arms or hands, to being able to perform normal functions such as eating, writing/typing, all of the things we do with our hands every day.”
In the United States alone, 1 in every 50 people lives with paralysis, which is approximately 5.4 million people and currently, roughly 450,000 in the U.S. are affected by a spinal chord injury. This is not as uncommon as many might think, but the symptoms and repercussions of such an injury are extensive and paralysis is often thought of as, at least mostly, irreversible. But this new cell therapy could be a step in the right direction towards rehabilitating those with severe spinal chord injuries.
Now, while the results of this study range from promising to life-changing, there are limitations and restrictions to using this therapy. AST-OPC1 was, in this study, administered 21-42 days after initial injury, but patients must be able to receive treatment 25 days after their injury, which is very quick. Additionally, patients can only receive the treatment if their spinal cords are not completely severed. However, despite these difficult restrictions, those that are eligible for this treatment have the potential to restore motor function, something that many treatments do not and can not hope for.
In the words of Christopher Block, a patient in this study in August 2016 who was injured in an accident in July 2016, “Not being able to feel your chest and the temperature of water, regaining that feeling is like being reborn. It’s amazing.”