A paralysed Bulgarian man can walk again after receiving revolutionary stem cell transplant treatment in Poland in a breakthrough hailed by one of the British scientists responsible as “more impressive than a man walking on the moon”.
Darek Fidyka was paralysed from the chest down following a knife attack in 2010, but can now walk using a frame after receiving treatment in which nerve cells from his nose were transplanted into his severed spinal column, according to research published in the journal Cell Transplantation on Tuesday.
“When there’s nothing, you can’t feel almost half of your body. You’re helpless, lost,” the patient, who is now recovering at the Akron Neuro-Rehabilitation Center in Wroclaw, told BBC’s Panorama programme.
“When it begins to come back, you feel you’ve started your life all over again, as if you are reborn. It’s an incredible feeling, difficult to describe,” he said.
Specialist olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), which form part of the sense of smell, were used in the treatment as they are pathway cells, enabling nearby nerve fibres to be continually regenerated.
Pawel Tabakow, consultant neurosurgeon at Wroclaw University, led a team of surgeons in removing one of the patient’s olfactory bulbs before transplanting cultured cells into the spinal cord.
Scientists think that the cells, implanted above and below the injury, enabled damaged fibres to reconnect.
“What we’ve done is establish a principle, nerve fibres can grow back and restore function, provided we give them a bridge,” explained Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, who led the British research team working on the joint project.
“To me, this is more impressive than a man walking on the moon. I believe this is the moment when paralysis can be reversed.”
Tabakow said it was “amazing to see how regeneration of the spinal cord, something that was thought impossible for many years, is becoming a reality”.
Scientists now plan to hold clinical trials on 10 patients in Britain and Poland.