By Tamara Cohen
PUBLISHED: 13:14 EST, 31 May 2012 | UPDATED: 19:18 EST, 31 May 2012
Paralysed patients have been given fresh hope after scientists enabled rats with severed spines to run again.
Using a cocktail of drugs and electrical impulses, researchers ‘regrew’ nerves linking the spinal cord to the brain.
After two weeks, the animals were not only able to walk, but climb stairs and run on a treadmill.
Professor Gregoire Courtine said the study revealed the body could recover from some injuries previously thought to cause permanent paralysis.
His team, based in Switzerland, believe human trials could begin next year for patients with spinal injuries thanks to a £7million grant.
There are around 50,000 people with spinal cord injuries in Britain.
In tests at the University of Zurich, rats had their spine tissue cut but not completely severed.
They were unable to walk as they could no longer receive signals from the brain. But when they were suspended in a vest on their hind legs, and the bottom of their spine stimulated using drugs and electrical impulses, the dormant nerves were reactivated.
Signals from the brain were able to ‘bypass’ the injury and restore contact with the lower body.
Professor Courtine said: ‘This is the World Cup of neuro-rehabilitation. Our rats have become athletes when just weeks before they were completely paralysed. I am talking about 100 per cent recuperation of voluntary movement.
‘The brain established new connections.
‘The cut fibres regrew and established relay connections in the spinal cord which enabled them to pass information from the brain, past the injury in order to restore a voluntary control over the circuitry below the injury.’
The rats could only walk with the chemical and electrical stimulation and scientists would have to devise a safe way of administering these to humans – for example through a catheter – on a long-term basis.
Experts in the field praised the work, published in the journal Science, as a major medical advance which could offer the best hope yet to paralysed patients.
However they urged caution, pointing out that rats’ nervous systems are not the same as those of humans, and that most spinal injuries involve extensive bruising rather than a neat cut.
Dr Elizabeth Bradbury, of King’s College London, said: ‘This is ground-breaking research and offers great hope for the future of restoring function to spinal-injured patients, however some questions remain before we know how useful this approach may be in humans.’
Dr Mark Bacon, of the organisation Spinal Research, said: ‘It gives enormous hope.
‘In the past it was seen as folly to think we might be able to restore function and I think that’s no longer the case, but it’s about translating these robust effects in animal models to the clinic safely.’
Recent years have seen intense efforts focused on stem cell therapies to help paralysed patients, but these have not yielded any treatments so far.
Last year US researchers helped a 23-year-old paralysed man regain some movement after electrical stimulation, but Dr Bacon said the cocktail of drugs the Swiss team used had offered an additional boost.
Dan Burden of the Spinal Cord Association said: ‘It’s an exciting development but we would issue a word of caution that the neurology [of rats] is considerably different from our own.
‘We are a long way off anything that would resemble a cure in humans, but this is a first step which might well lead to new treatments which could make the future of people with spinal cord injuries seem brighter.’