Stem cell work hailed as paraplegic walks again

Professor Alan Mackay-Sim
Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, Director of the National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research

When Bulgarian firefighter Mr Darek Fidyka ‘s spinal cord was severed in a knife attack, his future seemed destined to be confined to a wheelchair. Medical science, however, had other ideas.

Four years later, 38-year-old Mr Fidyka is walking again and in no small part due to the work conducted at Griffith University’s National Centre for Adult Stem Cell Research within the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery.

Medical scientists are hailing the contribution by the Director of the Centre, Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, and his team. Some are even claiming the breakthrough as more impressive than man walking on the moon.

In an operation performed in Poland by Polish and British surgeons, olfactory ensheathing cells from Mr Fidyka’s nose were injected above and below where his spinal cord was severed. Nerves from his ankle were used to bridge the scar tissue.

Leading the surgery was Professor Geoffrey Raisman, from University College London’s Institute of Neurology, who consulted with Professor Mackay-Sim in Brisbane in 2012.

This followed an operation performed by a team led by Professor Mackay-Sim and the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Dr Tim Geraghty — also an Adjunct Professor with the Griffith Health Institute — in which olfactory cells from a paraplegic Australian man were transplanted into his spinal cord.

While neither the patient nor subsequent others regained movement in their legs, vital information gleaned during those operations fed insight into neural regeneration and has culminated in the revolutionary procedure and positive outcome for Mr Fidyka.

Understandably delighted at the news, Professor Mackay-Sim told The Australian newspaper there was still much to do before the operation became routine. He also noted the irony of his own condition, undergoing stem cell therapy for multiple myeloma.

More than 12,000 Australians are living with spinal cord injury and there is at least one new occurrence every day, but as this latest development indicates, the prospects of regeneration and recovery are much more positive.

Perry Cross, in wheelchair, with Dr James John from the Eskitis Institute
Perry Cross and Dr James St John at the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery

Gold Coast man Mr Perry Cross was just 19 when he was left a C2 quadriplegic after breaking his neck playing rugby. In the 20 years since, he has dedicated himself to finding a cure for paralysis.

Through his Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation, scientists at the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery are midway through a three-year, $150,000 research project into spinal cord injury.

“It’s been 20 years since I was injured and it was a different world back then, especially when it came to the treatment of paralysis,” says Mr Cross.

“Now, given advances in medical technology, scientific research and understanding, attitudes are changing as the possibility for recovery becomes ever more real.”

Project Leader Dr James St John and his team of researchers are working on processes by which glial cells from the olfactory mucosa — located in the upper region of the nasal cavity — are relocated to the damaged spinal cord. Glial cells are the supporting cells of the nervous system and can help nerve fibres to regenerate.

Researchers are also trialling specialised growth factors that can both reduce the damage that occurs after a spinal cord injury and improve recovery of function.

“Technology and techniques have come so far,” says Dr St John. “We’re using live cell imaging, 3D complex cell assays, in vivo spinal injury models, natural product analysis and many other processes as we seek the key to restoring movement after paralysis.”

Meanwhile, Professor Mackay-Sim told The Australian that Mr Fidyka’s case underlines the importance of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s proposed $20 billion medical research fund, announced in May and aspects of which are scheduled to begin rolling out early in 2015.

To hear more about the work being done on spinal cord injury at Griffith University, see our Know More In Sixty Seconds video at also go to