Dogs with spinal cord injuries that prevented them from using their back legs are able to walk again, thanks to receiving a transplant of cells grown from the lining of their nose.
You can see the results yourself for a 10-year-old dachsund, Jasper, via a video on the BBC. As his owner, May Hay, noted:
“Before the treatment we used to have to wheel Jasper round on a trolley because his back legs were useless. Now he whizzes around the house and garden and is able to keep up with the other dogs. It’s wonderful.”
Out of 34 dogs in a trial, 23 had the cells injected into the injury site; the rest received an injection of neural fluids. Many of those who had received the transplants of olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC) were able — quite miraculously — to walk on a treadmill, with the aid of a harness. Some dogs also regained bowel and bladder control though not in significant numbers, say the Telegraph.
The olfactory system is the only part of the body in which nerve fibers keep growing in adult mammals. Cells called olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC) are found at the back of the nasal cavity. They are located around the receptor neurons that help us smell and send signals to the brain; they must be replaced constantly.
The researchers removed OECs from the lining of the dogs’ nose canals; these were then grown in laboratories for some weeks. The transplanted neural cells regenerated the nerve fibers across the dogs’ damaged spinal cord regions, thus giving them use of their back legs again and also helping them to coordinate movements with their front legs.
The study, by researchers from the U.K.’s Medical Research Council’s Regenerative Medicine Centre and Cambridge University’s Veterinary School, was the first in which the participants were not laboratory animals but had “real life” health problems and injuries.
Could the Treatment Be Used For Humans?
Scientists have previously thought that OECs might be useful in treating spinal cord injuries and are “cautiously optimistic” that they might help to treat human patients. Initial trials using OECs in humans have shown them to be safe.
Professor Robin Franklin, a regeneration biologist at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Stem Cell Institute and co-author of the study, noted that “We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function.” The new procedure might be used to treat those with damaged neural networks, along with drug treatments and bioengineering.
Prof Geoffrey Raisman, chair of Neural Regeneration at University College London, who discovered OECs in 1985, pointed out that the treatment was by no means a cure for spinal cord injuries in humans. As he said to the BBC, ”This procedure has enabled an injured dog to step with its hind legs, but the much harder range of higher functions lost in spinal cord injury – hand function, bladder function, temperature regulation, for example – are yet more complicated and still a long way away.”
The new nerve connections that the OEC procedure made possible were for much shorter distances than would be needed to connect the brain to the spinal cord.
Still, for Jasper and the other dogs for whom the procedure was successful, regaining the ability to move around must have been — must be — a thrill and, as his owner tells the Telegraph, “utterly magic.”
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