In 2014, surgeons in Poland performed ground-breaking surgery on Darek Fidyka, whose spinal cord was severed in a knife attack. Surgeons removed some of the cells surrounding the nerves that run from Mr Fidyka’s nose into his brain and injected them into the gap that the knife wound had left in his spine.
He can now walk, with the assistance of high leg braces and a walking frame. Feeling has also returned to his legs, he now has bladder control and his sexual function has returned.
This remarkable breakthrough involving the transplanting of olfactory ensheathing cells has shown surprising promise in healing spinal-cord injuries. The treatment’s success offers an alternative to therapies such as stem-cell transplants and stimulation of nerve growth in the spine through drugs, both of which have not worked as well as hoped. This is in part because stem cells are difficult to manipulate, and the microenvironment of spinal-cord fluid is extremely complicated.
An opportunity for breakthrough treatment for spinal injury
Following the success of Mr Fidyka’s intervention, the Wroclaw Walk Again Project was launched. It is now searching for more patients to volunteer for the procedure, which costs around £250,000 per patient. The funding comes from a small British charity - the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (NSIF). To be eligible patients must have no feeling or voluntary muscle function below the injury site and they must be prepared to spend around three years in Poland.
How the treatment works
The pioneering treatment offered in Poland, headed by surgeon Dr Pawel Tabakow, is designed to reconnect the brain to the lower limbs through the spinal cord. It is hoped to be achieved via two complex operations.
In the first procedure, surgeons will remove one of the patient's olfactory bulbs, which sit above the nasal cavity at the base of the brain, and process the sense of smell. This bulb contains the olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) which possess a natural ability to constantly renew.
The OECs will be injected above and below the spinal injury in the second operation and strips of tissue will be placed across the gap in the spinal cord. The team believe the OECs will enable nerve fibres to regenerate across the cord and repair the damage.
An independent team of assessors led by neurophysiologists from Imperial College London will also be closely involved in monitoring the research.
Not a quick fix
Those involved in the project are quick to emphasise that volunteers must be prepared to put in enormous effort and determination to achieve the same success as Mr Fidykas, who still spends five hours a day undergoing physiotherapy. The treatment will also take many more years to refine before it can be made available through public healthcare programmes.
This new breakthrough in spinal surgery could offer those who have been left paralysed by a spinal injury a chance to walk again. However, it will be many years before victims of a spinal injury can benefit.
Spinal paralysis in many cases can be caused as a result of negligence and therefore a claim for compensation can be considered. The money received can help victims pay for ongoing physical therapy and modifications to their home to accommodate wheelchair access, as well as providing financial security for the patient’s family.
Mr Fidyka, meanwhile, is still continuing treatment. He told DT Max in an interview with the New Yorker; “When I go shopping, I’d like to be able to walk to and from the car with a walker”. He adds, “If not for my strong spirit, I wouldn’t even be here now. Psyche is the most important element.”
How to obtain compensation for a spinal injury
At IBB, our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, have the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to claim compensation for a spinal injury or any other medical negligence incident. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in our contact form. Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence and treated with utmost sensitivity.