Monday, September 21, 2009

More on the Walking Rats

An experiment that has helped paralyzed rats to walk again has raised new hopes for patients with spinal cord injury.

Researchers used a combination of drug therapy, electrical stimulation and exercise training to enable rats with spinal cord injuries to walk and support their body weight, according to the study, which was published this week in Nature Neuroscience.

Previous studies have used embryonic stem cells to repair damaged spinal nerves, allowing paralyzed rats to regain some function. But rather than reconnecting the spinal system with the brain, the new research focuses on stimulating and retraining the existing sensory system below the level of the injury.
Today, I spoke with principal investigator Reggie Edgerton, a professor of neurobiology and physiological sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, to learn more about the research, what it means and when similar studies will be conducted in humans. Here’s our conversation.
How soon can this animal research be translated for human studies?
I’m very optimistic about it, and I’m also worried about projecting too much hope. I think there are a lot of possibilities here. I think there is a very high probability that a number of individuals with severe injuries can gain some functional improvement with this approach.
Based on the evidence from animals so far, we have learned a lot. It gives us a good starting point. My guess is that it’s going to work in humans. Two subjects who have incomplete injuries have already been implanted [with electrical stimulation devices]. They saw improved walking as a result of a similar type of stimulation. There are plans in place to go ahead with that process and test in a few subjects initially. We hope to begin testing within a year.

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