Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky Michelle Bazeley believes that she will see a cure for spinal cord injuries in her lifetime.
According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, about 11,000 people sustain spinal cord injuries each year. People with these injuries have a new reason for hope.
A new method for treating spinal cord injuries being tested at the University of Louisville has created a stir in the medical community. Dr. Scott Whittemore, the researcher conducting the experiments, warns that they must proceed carefully.
Whittemore, a U of L researcher and scientific director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, successfully showed that by grafting stem cells onto damaged spinal cords in rats, paralysis can be partially reversed and in some cases corrected.
“The research seems to offer some real promise,” said Marci Roth, director and CEO for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.
Whittemore said that other scientists have shown the experiment to be theoretically possible, but he believes that he is the first to prove it to be possible during clinical studies. He estimates that it took his team seven or eight years to obtain the desired results.
“We thought it was going to be easy,” Whittemore said with a laugh. “The work study itself was a year-long study.”
The stem cells and gene therapy allowed rats to more quickly reproduce Myelin, a protective coating around the nervous system that, when damaged, can disrupt signals from the spinal cord to the brain, leading to paralysis.
“It’s a good avenue to explore. It’s definitely hopeful,” said Bazeley, the 30-year-old circle leader for Winners on Wheels.
However, she hopes that the research does not become too publicized until scientists know for sure that it will work.
While the developments have gained national attention, Whittemore initially focused the attention locally to inform the community of his progress and because he expects that human trials could be years away.
“We [advertised] locally so both the university and the community could understand what we’re doing here — that we’re doing very important research,” Whittemore said. However, John Drees, director of Communication and Marketing for U of L, said that more publicity events are in store to help promote the research nationally.
Whittemore said there need to be more tests and better results before experiments should be done on humans. “One question you may ask is … can you make this work better?” he said. “And secondly, when you start to think of clinical applications, there are certain concerns that are going to have to be addressed before we use these types of approaches.”
Dr. David Magnuson, an associate professor in neurological surgery at U of L, has not directly participated in the research but has given his input to aid the researchers.
He said the next step for the team will be to “replicate and validate” the results, adding that they plan to do tests in other laboratories to make sure the results remain the same.
Magnuson said that while there are concerns about creating a false hope or lacking quality in research, he also the prestige that comes with being first.
“We’re all under pressure to publish,” he said.
While Whittemore admitted that he would appreciate getting credit for such a breakthrough in spinal cord treatment, he said that it’s much more important to make sure the research is done correctly. He acknowledged that problems occurring during human research could set back the entire field.
“We need to make that process more efficient, and we’re doing that in our ongoing research,” Whittemore said. “We’re moving forward. Things don’t come that quickly.”
By MATTHEW ADKINS