Exciting “rat breakthrough” is not miracle cure for spinal cord injuries

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Exciting “rat breakthrough” is not miracle cure for spinal cord injuries

6th June 2012

A specialist serious injury lawyer who was himself spinally injured as a teenager has said that the recent scientific breakthrough which saw paralysed rats able to walk again, should not give false hope to people with spinal injuries.

Jonathan Fogerty, an associate with Fentons Solicitors LLP and also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Spinal Injuries Association, was left paralysed after a diving accident in which he sustained a spinal cord injury 24 years ago. He said that while the developments reported by Swiss researchers in the journal ‘Science’ were an exciting step forward, it was vital that people with spinal injuries were not led to believe a miracle cure was imminent.

“This is obviously a very exciting study, and the results have caused quite a stir as the scientists were able to restore mobility to the rats by bathing their spinal cords in chemicals and applying electricity,” said Jonathan. “But while any development like this is obviously welcome and encouraging, it’s important that we don’t give people who have sustained spinal cord injury false hope. Any potential benefit to spinally injured people could be a very long way off, and I have seen many stories of this kind since I was injured myself.”

The research by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) reported how injured rats could walk, run and even learn to climb stairs with the assistance of spinal stimulation, and has led to some experts declaring that restoring function after paralysis can no longer be dismissed as a pipedream.

The spinal cord of the rats was cut in two places, meaning messages could not travel from the brain to the legs, but the spinal cord was still in one piece. The researchers then tried to repair the damage by first injecting chemicals to stimulate the nerves in the spine, then electrically stimulating the base of the spine. The report says that this was insufficient to restore movement though, and the rats were supported in a robotic harness and were shown a treat which they needed to ‘learn’ to walk towards.

Lead researcher, Prof Gregoire Courtine, said: “Over time the animal regains the capacity to perform one, two steps, then a long run and eventually we gain the capacity to sprint over ground, climb stairs and even pass obstacles.”

But it was stressed that the latest advance was not a cure for spinal cord injuries in people.

“It’s obviously very welcome evidence that medical research is moving in the right direction,” said Jonathan. “But we also have to retain a certain perspective. Spinal cord injuries in people might be significantly more complicated than those used on rats in the tests, and there might be less tissue for new nerves to grow through, which might also react very differently. Whilst we may have a similar neurological make up to rats, we also move very differently, mobilising on two legs rather than crawling around on four, and we have to balance and stay upright as well.”

He explained that in most cases where someone sustains a spinal injury in a road traffic collision or accidental fall, the subsequent care and rehabilitation costs often form the largest part of any claim for compensation.

“That underlines the enormous life-changing effect a spinal cord injury has on an individual,” Jonathan said. “While this latest news is clearly something to be applauded, it is just the latest step in many years’ of ongoing research into whether damaged nerves in the spinal cord can be regenerated.

“Spinal cord injuries lead to very serious issues and can take years to adapt to,” he said. My message would be don’t give up hope on a miracle cure being found but it is important that anyone who is spinally injured focuses on their rehabilitation in order to achieve their maximum potential and have a life after spinal cord injury.”

Read more at: BBC News