PARALYSED dogs have been helped to walk again after being given an injection of their own stem cells in a treatment that could offer hope for human accident victims, it has been announced.
The results have been hailed as ‘extremely exciting’ and ‘tremendously important’, by experts.
Researchers used pet dogs with ‘real life’ injuries to test the treatment which involved taking cells from the lining of the nose and injecting them into the spine in an attempt to bridge the damage in their spinal column.
In the unique collaboration between the Medical Research Council Regenerative Medicine Centre and Cambridge University’s Veterinary School, scientists carried out the first randomised controlled trial using the technique, so neither the treating vet, the owner, nor indeed the dog, knew if they were receiving the real treatment or a dummy.
The findings were published in the journal Brain and early trials in humans with injuries has established that the procedure is safe.
The 34 pet dogs had all suffered severe spinal cord injury.
Twelve months or more after the injury, they were unable to use their back legs to walk and unable to feel pain in their hindquarters.
After receiving the spinal injections the dogs were tested at one month intervals on a treadmill while being supported in a harness.
In particular, the researchers analysed the dogs’ ability to co-ordinate movement of their front and back limbs.
The group of dogs that had received the stem cell injection showed considerable improvement that was not seen in the other group.
These animals moved previously paralysed hind limbs and co-ordinated the movement with their front legs.
Professor Robin Franklin, a co-author of the study from the Wellcome Trust-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, University of Cambridge, said: “Our findings are extremely exciting because they show for the first time that transplanting these types of cell into a severely damaged spinal cord can bring about significant improvement.
“We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function.
“It’s more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies, for example.”
Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, said: “This proof of concept study on pet dogs with the type of injury sustained by human spinal patients is tremendously important and an excellent basis for further research in an area where options for treatment are extremely limited. It’s a great example of collaboration between veterinary and regenerative medicine researchers that has had an excellent outcome for the pet participants and potentially for human patients.”
The researchers stress that human patients with a spinal injury rate a return in sexual function and continence far higher than improved mobility.
Some of the dogs in the study did regain bowel and bladder control but the number of these was not statistically significant.
May Hay, owner of Jasper who took part in the trial, said: “Before the trial, Jasper was unable to walk at all. When we took him out we used a sling for his back legs so that he could exercise the front ones.
“It was heartbreaking. But now we can’t stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other dogs we own. It’s utterly magic.”
Prof Geoffrey Raisman FRS, chairman of Neural Regeneration at University College London, said: “This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans – that could still be a long way off. But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road towards it.
“But from a clinical perspective, the benefits are still limited at this stage. This procedure has enabled an injured dog to step with its hind legs, but the much harder range of higher functions lost in spinal cord injury – hand function, bladder function, temperature regulation, for example - are yet more complicated and still a long way away.”