What’s the most catastrophic illness that can befall us? To me it’s a spinal cord injury (SCI) that results in total paralysis.
During a recent visit to Israel, I interviewed Dr. Shimon Rochkind, world-renowned neurosurgeon at the Tel Aviv University Sourasky Medical Center, an expert on SCI.
Every year 12,000 North Americans sustain spinal cord injury. The people involved are usually under the age of 30, and 80 percent are males. Some, like Christopher Reeves of Superman fame, fall from a horse. Others dive into shallow water or are involved in car accidents.
Rochkind has spent his life trying to accomplish what’s said to be impossible. Time and time again we’ve been told that some tissues of the body can regenerate, but never the spinal cord. Christopher Reeves received the best treatment money can buy, but he never walked again.
What I witnessed in Rochkind’s laboratory shows that what we’ve accepted as gospel for centuries is no longer true.
Rochkind first showed me motion pictures of a rat running around his cage. Later he surgically removed a quarter of an inch of the rat’s spinal cord, which resulted in complete paralysis of the hind legs. Normally without a complete spinal cord, the rat would never walk again.
But motion photos taken several weeks later revealed that the rat was now moving its legs. It was not doing so as perfectly as before, but good enough to get quickly around his cage.
So what had Rochkind done to partially reverse the paralysis? He had to overcome several problems. First, bridge the gap between the severed nerves. Then nourish the nerves and stimulate their growth. Finally, encourage the first step as one does with an infant.
The first solution was to develop what Rochkind calls a “genetically-engineered implant” thousands of times more difficult than designing a hip replacement. This meant experimenting with several different types of tissue.
One implant involved human spinal cord cells. But a major advance was his eventual discovery that it was possible to use cells taken from the lining of the adult human nose.
What tissue will be used in the final implant is unknown. But at the moment, it’s composed of a highly complex assortment of hyaluronic acid, neuronal growth factor, and antioxidants such as vitamin C and other ingredients. This mass of material is put in a soft biodegradable tube placed between the severed nerve endings. This acts as a scaffold for the implant.
Had he lived, would Christopher Reeve have walked again? Rochkind is convinced that the possibility will happen in his lifetime. They may not be able to walk perfectly, but patients with these injuries will not be immobilized for the rest of their lives.
Not all nerve injuries are spinal cord ones. For instance, some involve the peripheral nerves of the arm or legs. It’s the type of injury that cripples thousands of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and other war sites.
Rochkind’s laboratory is making great advances with these injuries. The big problem has always been the rapid loss of muscle mass once a nerve is injured. After all, what’s the use of regenerating the nerve if there’s no muscle tissue left to function?
For these peripheral injuries, Rochkind is using laser phototherapy, which provides an immediate protective effect. This therapy not only helps to prevent muscle loss, but also helps to regenerate nerves and aids in restoring muscle mass. Laser therapy is given two hours a day for 21 days. The sooner it is started the better the results.
Researchers in Israel are trying to use stem cells to produce dopamine, the substance lacking in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. They are also trying to use stem cells to help failing hearts.
I left Israel impressed and amazed at how this tiny country with no natural resources, fighting for its very existence since 1948, could accomplish so much in research. As they say, it’s not the size of the dog that wins the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.
I’d predict that Dr. Rochkind’s innovative work is headed for a Nobel Prize in medicine.
By W. Gifford-Jones, M.D.
Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto. His website is DocGiff.com