Back in 2010, Darek Fidyka became paralyzed from the waist down after suffering stab wounds to his back. Now, after 19 months of treatment in which cells from his brain were transplanted into his spinal column, he can walk with a frame. Researchers are calling it a "historic breakthrough."

The new technique, the details of which now appear in the latest edition of Cell Transplantation, involve olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs), which come from a part of our brains that deals with the sense of smell. By transplanting them into Fidyka's spinal column, the neurologists were able to construct a "nerve bridge" between two stumps of the damaged spinal column.

"We believe... this procedure is the breakthrough which, as it is further developed, will result in a historic change in the currently hopeless outlook for people disabled by spinal cord injury," noted the study's lead author Geoffrey Raisman in a Reuters article. He's currently a professor at University College London's (UCL) institute of neurology.

Fidyka, who's 38 years old, has recovered some voluntary movement and some sensation in his legs. He's continuing to improve more than predicted, and he's now able to drive and live more independently.

The Guardian explains more:

The surgery was performed by a Polish team led by one of the world's top spinal repair experts, Dr Pawel Tabakow, from Wroclaw Medical University, and involved transplanting olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) from the nose to the spinal cord.

OECs assist the repair of damaged nerves that transmit smell messages by opening up pathways for them to the olfactory bulbs in the forebrain.

Relocated to the spinal cord, they appear to enable the ends of severed nerve fibres to grow and join together – something that was previously thought to be impossible.

While some patients with partial spinal injury have made remarkable recoveries, a complete break is generally assumed to be unrepairable.

Nerve fibres have a built-in regenerative ability, but to exploit this characteristic, the scar in the spinal column has to be opened up, and then provided with a channel that will lead the nerve fibres to where they need to go.

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Raisman hopes to treat at least three more patients in the near future, funding permitted.

[ Reuters | National Institute for Medical Research | The Guardian ]

Guardian infographic by Paddy Allen. Top image: Guardian.