Stem Cells and Implants Spark a New Era of Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

Often caused by a traumatic injury or a neurological condition, damage to the spinal cord can lead to a range of complex issues with sensory and motor function.

This makes spinal cord damage not only incredibly difficult to live with, but also incredibly challenging for doctors to treat. The current treatment for spinal cord injuries is most often a taxing combination of surgery, drugs, and regular physical rehabilitation.

This all may soon be changing thanks to advances in the field of stem cell research and technological implants. Here we highlight two stories that have emerged of promising treatments that are allowing patients to not only manage their condition but also regain mobility and motor control.

Achieving the Impossible: Walking with a Severed Spinal Cord

Michel Roccati was left paralysed from the waist down after a motorbike accident five years ago.

Michel’s spinal cord was completely severed due to the accident. He had no feeling at all in his legs and was told that any chance of regaining sensation in the future, let alone ever walking again, was out of the realm of possibility.

However, in an unprecedented breakthrough and achievement for modern science, Michel has become the first person to walk again after a severed spinal cord thanks to an electrical implant.

The implant was developed by a team of Swiss researchers and the results were published in the journal Nature Medicine. The team had previously used the technology to improve the health of another paralysed patient, so much that it allowed him to become a father.

The speed of Michel’s recovery amazed the neurosurgeon, Prof. Jocelyne Bloch at Lausanne University Hospital, who inserted the implant and attached electrodes to individual nerve fibres:

“I was extremely surprised… Michel is absolutely incredible. He should be able to use this technology to progress and be better and better.”

The researchers stress that the implant isn’t a cure for spinal cord injuries and that the technology is still very complicated. That being said, the accomplishment is a major step toward improving quality of life.

A Pioneering Stem Cell Trial: “The Drug of Hope”

Another inspiring story and exciting development for spinal cord injury treatment comes from the Puerta de Hierro Hospital in Madrid.

Cisco Garcia suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury in 2015 due to a snowboarding accident. With a fervent drive to improve his condition, the 39-year-old continually looked for new treatments until he eventually found a pioneering stem cell trial.

The trial, which began in June 2021, consists of 40 participants who are receiving a treatment of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) extracted from the patient themselves (autologous transplant).

The stem cells are injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid or the exact site of injury in two doses three months apart. Being named The Drug of Hope, the treatment holds high hopes but the researchers are modest in their expectations for the trial:

“It is a great advance, especially because it lays the foundation for further advances: that is, these patients, if one day they manage not to be catheterized, if they manage to have much less pain, let alone if they achieve greater sensitivity or some movement… All this for these patients means the world because it is that or nothing.”

Cisco dreams of once again being able to get up from his wheelchair and climb steps using his own legs. In the meantime, he is a symbol of hope and inspiration due to his flourishing career as a tennis Paralympian.

The results of the stem cell trial will be evaluated in 2023. All being well, the team hopes to expand the trial to include 80 participants per year.

The treatments are currently in their very early phases of research and testing. However, several researchers believe that implant technology and stem cell therapies could effectively be used together to treat spinal cord damage in the not-too-distant future.