Human trials of a technique with the potential to repair spinal cord injuries are set to start within three years, experts said today.
The work, which could help thousands of disabled people regain movement, will be carried out at University College London’s new Spinal Repair Unit.
The plans were outlined today as UCL launched a £300 million fundraising campaign to boost work across the university.
Professor Geoff Raisman and his team from the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) will join the Spinal Repair Unit to start work towards human trials.
They have already demonstrated that it is possible for severed spinal cord nerve fibres to grow back and restore lost functions.
Prof Raisman discovered that there was one part of the nervous system – a region in the nasal cavity involved in the sense of smell – in which nerve fibres were in a state of continuous growth during adult life.
The researchers transplanted cells from this region into the injured spinal cord of rats and found they were able to integrate into the damaged pathways and lay a “bridge” over the gap in the nerve fibres caused by injury.
The team believe the technique could be transferred to humans, who would act as their own cell donors.
They hope to start clinical trials in humans in the next two to three years.
Prof Raisman, who will be the first director of the unit, said: “I have spent my research career in trying to find a treatment for spinal cord injury, and I never anticipated that we would get this far when I started out.
“We have been able to persuade the medical profession that a cure was possible, and the fact that we have now joined UCL, and will be able to collaborate with the UK’s major neurosurgical team to develop human trials, represents a major step forward.”
It is estimated that 40,000 people in the UK are living with a spinal cord injury, with varying degrees of Disability.
“It goes without saying that we do not wish to raise false hopes in patients who are living with spinal cord injury,” Prof Raisman added.
“However, our work to date has indicated that, contrary to what was previously thought, the spinal cord does have the potential to repair itself.
“That is why the UCL Institute of Neurology believes that human trials are a logical next step.”
The work is being supported by the British Neurological Research Trust and other spinal research charities.
Roger Lemon, director of UCL’s Institute of Neurology, said: “Geoff Raisman and his team have shown that the repair of the injured spinal cord is now a real possibility.
“However, in order to translate the very exciting findings in the rat into benefits for patients, it is essential to have the scientists and clinicians working together, and this move means that we can now start preparing for the day when the first trials will begin.”
UCL also unveiled plans today to create the world’s first Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Sports Centre.
The centre would help paraplegics buy adapted tricycles with FES equipment to let them cycle using their leg muscles.
The system works by stimulating paralysed muscles by passing short pulses of current through electrodes on the skin which moves the legs.
The rider has a “throttle” to control how much stimulation is applied.
Professor Nick Donaldson wanted to create the centre as a support service to help people take advantage of the FES equipment as it became increasingly available.
Tricycles will cost up to £3,000 and stimulators £1,000, but staff at the centre can give advice on how patients can apply to charities for assistance.
Those visiting the centre will also help researchers fine-tune and improve the technology.
Prof Donaldson, of UCL’s Implanted Devices Group, said: “Many people with a disabling spinal injury could make use of FES, but at present it remains primarily a research tool, used in a handful of labs such as ours, so the only people who use it are those taking part in studies.
“We want to offer a public FES service through this pilot centre and we hope other centres will spring up.”
By Lyndsay Moss, Health Correspondent, PA News