A revolutionary implant of regenerative cells has knitted back together the spinal cord of a wheelchair-bound firefighter paralysed from the chest down in a knife attack, restoring sensation and muscle control to his legs.
The astonishing breakthrough by an Anglo-Polish medical team is the first ever instance where a complete spinal paralysis has been reversed and represents the potential conquering of one of the greatest challenges in medical science. If validated, it offers hope of a life-changing therapy to the 2.5m people paralysed by spinal injury across the world.
The technique, developed by researchers at University College London and put into practice by surgeons in the Polish city of Wroclaw, uses specialist human cells which repair damage to nasal nerves to enable spinal nerve fibres to re-grow and bridge a severed cord.
In the first procedure of its kind anywhere in the world, doctors implanted harvested cells - known as olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) - into an 8mm gap in the spinal cord of Darek Fidyka, a Bulgarian who was confined to a wheelchair in 2010 after an attacker stabbed him in the back, slicing cleanly through his spine. His doctors had given him a less than one per cent chance of even slight recovery.
But doctors report today that the OEC implants on the two "stumps" of the cord slowly restored the nerve fibre connections between both sides of the injury, returning feeling and then movement to Darek's legs. Some ten months after the surgery, the 40-year-old former part-time firefighter was able to walk with the aid of braces and a walking frame. He is now able to drive and live more independently.
Professor Geoffrey Raisman, the head of UCL's Institute of Neurology who conducted the groundbreaking research into OECs, told The Independent: "I believe we have now opened the door to a treatment of spinal cord injury which will get patients out of wheelchairs. Our goal is to develop this first procedure to a point where it can be rolled out as a worldwide general approach."