Paralysed Man Helped to Walk Again
A man who was paralysed from the neck down has been able to walk again after pioneering surgery from researchers in Poland and England, publishing their work in Cell Implantation.
In 2010, Darek Fidyak was repeatedly stabbed in the back with a knife, resulting in his spinal cord being completely severed apart from a thin piece of scar tissue on the right-hand side.
Despite intensive physiotherapy – five hours a day for five days a week – Darek showed no signs of recovery.
But Darek is now able to walk with a frame for the first time since the incident, and it’s all down to his olfactory ensheathing cells, or OECs.
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that OECs form a part of a person’s sense of smell. They act as pathways to nerve fibres in the olfactory system to be continually renewed, every 30 days, and it was this renewing capability the research team were interested in.
The idea was to use these “pathway cells” and nerve tissue from elsewhere in the body to bridge the gap in the spinal cord. Ideally, this would allow nerve fibres from above and below the injury to be able to reconnect once again.
The UK team was led by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, the Institute of Neurology’s Chair of Neural Regeneration at University College London. Dr Powel Tabakow, Wroclaw University Hospital consultant neurosurgeon, headed the Polish research team.
After being paralysed for two years, Darek was operated on by this collaborative effort and one of his olfactory bulbs was removed from his brain. Cells from the bulb were then grown in culture – in a lab under controlled conditions.
Two weeks later, there were 500,000 cells. These were transplanted into the patient’s spinal cord through around 100 micro-injections above and below where his spinal cord had been cut.
Surgeons then removed four thin strips of nerve tissue from Darek’s ankle which were then placed across the break in the spinal cord, allowing the fibres above and below the injury to reconnect.
After the surgery, Darek resumed his physiotherapy, and it was only when three months later he noticed that his left thigh was starting to put on muscle that he realised the operation had been a success.
Three months after that, Darek took his first steps in more than two years, with the aid of parallel bars and leg braces, and the support of his physiotherapist.
And now, two years after the operation, with the help of a walking frame, he is able to walk outside the rehabilitation centre. And if that wasn’t good enough news for him, Darek has also regained some bowel and bladder sensation, as well as sexual function.
Although very tiring, Darek said that walking again was an incredible feeling. “When you can’t feel almost half your body, you are helpless,” he said. “But when it starts coming back, it is like you were born again.”
He added that he thinks that becoming independent again is a realistic ideal. “What I have learned is that you must never give up, but keep fighting,” he said, “because some door will open in life.”
Professor Raisman described the whole successful procedure as a historic breakthrough, explaining that Darek is now able to get back to much of his life before the incident – even driving a car.
“The number of patients who are completely paralysed is enormous. There are millions of them in the world,” he said. “If we can convince the global neurosurgeon community that this works, then it will develop very rapidly indeed.”
Dr Tabakow agreed, stating, “It is amazing to see how regeneration of the spinal cord, something that was thought impossible for many years, is becoming a reality.”