Paralyzed man walks after transplanted cells repair his spine

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GWEN IFILL: A man paralyzed from the chest down is now able to walk again, thanks to a pioneering transplant using cells from his nose. The 38-year-old was treated by surgeons in Poland and is the first known patient to ever recover from a complete severing of the spinal nerves.

Alex Thomson of Independent Television News has the story.

ALEX THOMSON: Seeing is believing. Two years on from surgery in Poland, Darek Fidyka is walking. His spinal cord severed in a knife attack, he had been paralyzed from the arms down. The London medical team behind this breakthrough say just one man. But the implications, if they can replicate it, are huge for all mankind.

GEOFFREY RAISMAN, University College London: I still think, myself, that this is a bigger thing than landing a man on the moon. Gradually, he could move his thigh. Now he can move his knee. It’s not great movement, but, to him, it’s — it’s being reborn.

ALEX THOMSON: Darek was paralyzed from the chest down by a knife attack in 2010. A Polish team working with Professor Raisman took cells from the top of Darek’s nasal cavity. These olfactory ensheathing cells help us smell. When they’re damaged in the nose, they’re replaced by new nerve fibers within the nasal cavity.

The team hoped that the cell would do the same when transplanted into the spine. So, they injected strips of cells into an 8-millimeter gap in Darek’s spine with strips of implanted ankle issue to bridge the gap. These slowly restored the nerve fiber, closing the gap, allowing the brain signals to get through again.

GEOFFREY RAISMAN: What we have found could be of enormous benefit to mankind. But it will only be so if we can carry out the next steps and prove it, and if we can take this initial observation and turn it into something that will work for everyone. So I’m not looking back at where we have got to. I’m a — at what lies ahead.

ALEX THOMSON: The 11-year road to discovery began on a beach in Sydney, Australia, in 2003 and an-18-year old on his gap year paralyzed in a diving accident.

His father vowed then he would walk again. And from that day, David Nicholls has been searching for a breakthrough for his son, Daniel. Now he believes three medical firsts have been achieved.

DAVID NICHOLLS, Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation: Nobody in the chronic state of paralysis. This — Darek, the patient, is paralyzed for 15 months, flatlined, so no movement, no sensation. And that has been reversed. And it’s evidentially reversed.

The other significant first is nobody has ever reconnected two ends of a broken cord. We have done that. And the third issue is that the patient has been reclassified from completely paralyzed to not incompletely paralyzed. Well, you don’t do that. If you’re complete, it’s finite, it’s over.

ALEX THOMSON: At London’s Royal National Orthopedic Hospital, caution and excitement evenly balanced at today’s news.

DR. KIA REZAJOOI, Royal National Orthopedic Hospital: Clearly, it’s exciting if the actual claims are definitive and that these patients are improving neurologically, with functional improvement.

But this has to be replicated. This to be repeated in multi centers, and it has to be a randomized — high-level evidence, randomized trial.

ALEX THOMSON: Two-and-a-half million people globally are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord trauma. So, when David Nicholls told his son Daniel suddenly there was hope, it was a game changer.

Darek Fidyka, though, is one man. They need 10 million pounds now to fund 10 more patients for the treatment. As Professor Raisman put it today, we may possibly be the Wright brothers, but what we want is a 747.

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