RESEARCHERS are developing a method of transplanting nose cells into the spinal cord of paralysed patients to help them walk again.
The ground-breaking Scottish research aims to renew the lost connections between the brain and muscles that give us our movement and sense of touch. If successful, the tests at Glasgow university could provide hope for the 35,000 people in the UK who have a spinal cord injury.
The research team is focusing its study on stem cells in the nose, which provide the sense of smell. They believe these cells from the olfactory system could be key in reconnecting signals in the spinal cord as they constantly regenerate over a person’s lifetime.
The crucial factor blocking patients suffering from complete spinal cord injuries from regaining movement has been the area’s inability to regenerate itself.
Dr Sue Barnett, a cell biologist who is co-director of the project, said: “The basic idea of our research is to take cells from the part of the nervous system that gives us our sense of smell and to put these in the spinal cord. We want to transplant them into the spinal cord injury to create an Environment that will be favourable to the Regeneration of the injured nerves.
“Our work so far gives us good reason to believe that we can make the stem cells from the nose become the sorts of cells which are needed to support repair of the damaged spinal cord.
“If successful in promoting regeneration, this approach could provide a feasible treatment because it is possible to take cells from the lining of the nose without any permanent effect on the sense of smell.”
Research with stem cells has attracted international controversy, in particular research conducted on embryos. Although banned in the US, it is one method being considered for use by researchers to help rebuild the circuits of the spinal cord.
However, one vocal supporter of pioneering stem cell research is Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor paralysed after a riding accident in 1995. He could benefit if the three-year study is a success. Reeve has called for the method to be used for researching treatments for spinal injury patients in the US.
Dr John Riddell, a spinal cord neuroscientist – who is also directing the £322,000 project – said the study also had the potential to help people with other diseases of the nervous system, such as Multiple Sclerosis.
He added: “It’s a very exciting area and there has been a great deal of progress in recent years. Not so long ago, it was thought impossible to achieve any regeneration in the spinal cord.
“ Within the next 10 years, I think there will be some form of treatment available to allow some patients to have modest improvements in function.”
By Liam McDougall, Health Correspondent