World-first cell trial raises concerns

Published: January 20, 2011  |  Source: stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail
122

The $1 million price tag for a trial injecting nose cells into spinal-injury patients would be better spent helping people live with their disabilities, some experts say.

However, those involved with the trial say the New Zealand study will have international significance and funding everyday needs is like pouring money into a “great bottomless pit”.

The Ministry of Health multi-region ethics committee gave consent this week for an experimental trial which will see cells from people’s noses injected into the site of their spinal injuries.

Twelve paraplegics, half of whom will have the operation, will be accepted for the trial. The remaining six in the control group will get intensive rehabilitation.

Burwood Spinal Unit consultant Dr Richard Acland said he was unaware of any evidence of “worthwhile outcomes” from injecting nose cells into the spine.

The most he would hope for was that no participants be harmed.

Acland said intensive exercise therapy for all patients was positive as was the procedure of decompressing the spinal cord as part of the operation.

“What concerns me is putting tissue from the nose into the damaged spinal cord. I think the money could be invested in some other areas of more benefit.”

Patients needed to be made fully aware of the trial’s risks.

“It would be a miracle if anyone walked and that’s what everyone wants,” he said.

New Zealand Spinal Trust chief executive Andrew Hall said he had “mixed feelings” about the trial.

“My concern is that diverting resources off to that is taking it away from helping people manage their lives at the moment,” he said.

Otago Medical School haematologist and cell biologist Jim Faed, who is on the research team, said directing money towards helping patients in their everyday lives was like pouring it into a “great bottomless pit”. ACC spent more than $100 million a year on spinal-cord injury support.

New Zealand was doing the world’s first efficacy trial of the nose-cell treatment and it would have an international impact, Faed said. This trial was not expected to result in massive improvement for patients, but was a step towards reducing the massive personal and economic impact of spinal injuries.

There is growing medical opinion that nasal cells can help overcome the blocks that prevent nerve cells regenerating after damage to the spinal cord.

Burwood Spinal Unit medical director Dr Xianghu Xiong, who is on the trial’s medical team, said the procedure was controversial and the trial was needed to discover whether it could help.

Multi-region ethics committee acting chairwoman Margaret Horsburgh said the committee’s main concerns were about patient safety, but it had worked with researchers and was satisfied that problems had been fixed.

Greymouth tetraplegic Greg Mooney, 54, is not eligible for the trial, but said hearing it was going ahead gave him hope. Christchurch tetraplegic Hamish Ramsten said the risk involved in the trial would probably be too high for him to take. “It’s fantastic that these boundaries are being pushed and they are trying new stuff all the time,” he said.

REBECCA TODD
– The Press