After decades of research, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis has completed its first human cell transplant for a spinal cord injury.
Doctors grew what are called Schwann cells from nerve tissue taken from an unidentified man’s leg, then transplanted them back into his own body. The patient now has passed the critical 30-day, post-operation period without complications, giving researchers hope that they’re headed toward curing paralysis and developing treatments for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
“It was a very big step for The Miami Project, and we are off to a good start,” said Dr. James Guest, an associate professor of neurological surgery at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, where the project is based. He performed the transplant with Dr. Allan Levi, a University of Miami professor of neurological surgery, orthopedics and rehabilitation.
The procedure was the first of what will be eight scheduled for the project’s groundbreaking clinical trial, approved by federal officials seven months ago. The second subject was just enrolled last week.
Guest, who has been doing spinal cord research for 16 years, said it was “thrilling” to finally do a transplant. The recipient, whose personal details must remain private under the study’s protocol, will be monitored for a year.
In the meantime, researchers are eager to enroll six additional subjects. The criteria is very strict: They must have thoracic (upper and middle back) spinal cord damage; be between 18 and 50 years old; and have a specific level of paralysis. They also must have been injured no more than five days prior to enrollment.
“Getting the word out is important,” Guest said. “I am confident there are people out there who have sustained these injuries and would have been suitable. But for some reason, they weren’t referred to us.”
About 1.3 million people in the United States are paralyzed due to spinal cord damage, according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Injury is the second most common cause of paralysis, after stroke.
Schwann cells, found in the peripheral nervous system, are different from stem cells. Using cells from a patient’s own body lessens the chance of a transplant rejection or of transmitting genetically-linked problems, Guest said.
The trial, designed to monitor safety and pain, is the start of what will be a long road that will take years to travel. But Alex Tommasino, 33, is confident that he will benefit some day from what’s happened in Miami in the past two months.
“That hope is what keeps you going,” said Tommasino, who became a quadriplegic at 13, hit by a car while riding his bike. He basically grew up with The Miami Project, his family moving to South Florida so he could participate.
Tommasino regularly works out so “one day, when this cure does come along, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.
While his goal is to walk again, just being able to someday move his fingers or arms “would be night and day for me,” Tommasino said. “It would be huge.”
By Diane C. Lade