Spinal cord breakthrough in dogs offers hope for humans
A STUDY of pet dogs with severe spinal injuries suffered in accidents offers new hope for paralysed human patients.
Scientists restored movement to the dogs' hind legs by bridging breaks in the spinal cord using cells taken from their noses.
One previously crippled dachshund, Jasper, was described by its owner as "whizzing around the house" after undergoing the treatment.
The randomised controlled trial is the first to demonstrate effective spinal cord repair in "real life" injury cases.
Professor Robin Franklin, one of the study leaders from Cambridge University, 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."
For more than a decade, experts have known that olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) might prove useful in treating damaged spinal cords.
The cells support nerve fibre growth that maintains a communication pathway between the nose and the brain.
Previous research suggests that OECs can help form a bridge between damaged and undamaged spinal cord tissue by regenerating nerve fibres.
Although the treatment had been shown to be safe in human patients, its effectiveness was unknown.
In the new trial, scientists studied 34 pet dogs that had all suffered spinal cord injuries as a result of accidents and back problems. None were injured deliberately for the sake of research.
A year or more after their injuries, the animals were unable to use their back legs to walk and incapable of feeling pain in their hindquarters.
One group of dogs had OECs taken from the lining of their own noses and injected into the injury site. Another was only injected with the liquid in which the cells were suspended.
The trial was "double blind", meaning that until the study ended neither the researchers nor the dog owners knew which animals had received the active treatment.
Dogs were tested for neurological function at one month intervals and had their walking ability assessed on a treadmill.
Significant improvement was seen in the dogs injected with OECs, but not those receiving the placebo treatment, according to the findings reported in the journal 'Brain'. However, the researchers found that new nerve connections were only generated over short distances within the spinal cord. Prof Franklin warned patients not to expect too much from the approach.
"We're confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients," he said, "but It's more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments."