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Scientists Say They’re One Step Closer To Helping Paralysed People Walk Again
April 8, 2014
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Kent Stephenson, one of the patients involved in the study, shows off his newfound range of motion in his legs. (Photo: Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation)

New research from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville might hold the key to a cure for people with spinal cord injuries. At least according to a recent study, published this week in Brain: A Journal of Neurology

Researchers studied four men, all of whom were completely paralysed below the waist and considered unlikely to walk again. Then electrodes were implanted in the region of their spinal cords that's directly linked to the brain. The idea was to stimulate that region in order to make it responsive again to commands from the brain, and hopefully get the patients' legs to work.

And that's more or less what happened. The four test subjects can all move their legs and toes, and some can even lift upwards of 100 kilograms using their legs.

The pioneering breakthrough was first reported in 2012, which is when the tests began on the four patients in question. Since then, the patients have continually gained strength and range of movement in their legs. None of them can walk — but one of them, Drew Meas, can stand without the use of his electric stimulator.

"We think it's a very large milestone," Claudia Angeli, one of the researchers at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, told New Scientist. "There's not been anything like this, and no hope previously for the most severely injured patients, so this is a very important step forward for them."

Agnelli and her team now plan to test the device on eight more people. She also plans on increasing the number of electrodes from 16 to 27, which she hopes will allow patients to have more and finer control over their legs — and potentially help them walk one day. 

Here's a video of the device — and one of the test patients — in action:

And that's not the only extraordinary (as in, completely out-of-the-ordinary) medical breakthrough making news this week. Scientists in the U.K. are growing noses, ears and blood vessels in a laboratory by using stem cells.

The work is being spearheaded by Dr. Alexander Seifalian, who works at University College London — and whose work is being showcased today by London mayor Boris Johnson in an attempt to attract investment to Britain's science and research sectors. His is among several labs in the world experimenting with similar ideas of growing organs in a lab. And the process is relatively simple: scientists make a sophisticated mould in a specially designed machine, then cover that mould with stem cells.

"It's like making a cake," Seifalian told the Associated Press. "We just use a different kind of oven."

Dr. Alexander Seifalian showing off a nose he grew from stem cells in his London lab. (Photo: (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

So far, doctors have successfully transplanted organs — including tear ducts, blood vessels and windpipes — into a handful of patients. Now they want to expand the program, with the theory that lab-made body parts will be able to help exponentially more people than current procedures.

"At the moment, children who need new ears have to go through a really invasive procedure involving taking cartilage from their ribs," said Dr. Michelle Griffin, a plastic surgeon who works in Seifalian's lab. 

As research progresses, the hope is that the same technology could be used to grow internal organs like kidneys and livers, which currently require donors and often have long waiting times. If it works, these body parts could be made on a truly large scale one day. 

"People think your nose is very individual and personal," Seifalian told AP, "but this is something that we could mass produce like in a factory one day."


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