A team of Swiss surgeons have implanted electrodes into the spines of three people who are paralysed, helping them to walk again
15 February 2022
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Last week I wrote yet another positive medical news story, about an operation that can help reverse paralysis in people with spinal cord injuries. Coming straight after news the previous week about promising long-term results for a leukaemia treatment, it’s a welcome change, after two years of writing about a deadly pandemic.
Research aiming to reverse paralysis seems to be among the most glamorous areas of medical research. As such, it tends to get a lot of media coverage, sometimes getting overhyped as “medical miracle” type stories. When I first pitched the news to my editor, I told her the story sounded too good to be true.
But I was wrong. In this case, a team of Swiss surgeons implanted a suite of electrodes onto nerves coming out of the spine, which the recipients control using a computer. By pressing left and right buttons in turn, they can take careful and halting steps with one leg after another.
Using a wheeled walking frame for balance and to help support their body weight, they can go for walks around town or choose from a range of other activities, such as cycling and even swimming.
An important caveat is that only three people have had the operation. So far, it has gone well for all of them, which is obviously encouraging. But the scientists have warned that the technique must be tested in larger groups of people before it becomes more widely available, and this will take several years.
One recipient, an Italian man called Michel Roccati, was present at the researchers’ press conference, and it was really moving to hear his experience of coming round after the surgery and finding that he could now move his legs. My colleague has put together a great video about the work, and it was lovely for me to see Roccati, after previously only hearing his voice, and to see him walking.
Roccati made points I hadn’t previously considered. He found enormous satisfaction simply from being able to stand in a bar and have a drink with friends face to face – or from having meetings standing up with his work clients. He likes to go for a walk every day even if he has nowhere in particular to go.
If you are interested in this subject, I recommend a book called The World I Fell Out Of by The Times journalist Melanie Reid on her experiences after she became tetraplegic after falling from her horse, and how she has adjusted to her new life.
People with spinal cord injuries often say that they would value regaining control over their bladder and bowel functions almost as much as being able to walk again. The Swiss team are doing animal experiments that suggest they may be able to put electrodes into nerves that would allow bladder control.
In its current format, the Swiss procedure for restoring mobility wouldn’t be suitable for everyone with spinal cord injuries, but the researchers said they hope to achieve better function of any remaining nerves if they are able to operate soon after the injury. Acting more quickly could help because there can be scarring around the injury site in the months afterwards, which actually blocks nerve healing.
It is clearly early days, but treatments for paralysis are starting to look within our grasp. Maybe I should turn down my scepticism a notch.
OTHER HEALTH STORIES
- Getting an hour’s extra sleep per night could help you lose weight, according to a small randomised trial of the approach in people who were slightly sleep deprived to begin with. Meanwhile, a weekly injection that suppresses appetite may soon become available in the UK.
- If you were intrigued by the stories of the first pig-to-human organ transplants last month, check out our interview with transplant surgeon David Cooper on how he sees the field opening up.
- People who test positive for covid-19 in England may no longer be legally obliged to self-isolate, under plans that could come in by the end of this month. I looked at the impact of England’s “let it rip” strategy in a previous newsletter.
FROM THE ARCHIVE
“The year was 1883, and the man’s medical records were clear that his case was hopeless. In the space of three years, he had had five operations to remove a tumour from his neck and it was impossible to remove the whole tumour. He would die soon. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the poor man then suffered two attacks of erysipelas, a skin infection. But when his fever broke and the man had recovered, his tumour had vanished. There could be only one explanation: whatever had caused the fever had also destroyed the cancer.”
So begins this tale from our archive of Dr William Coley and his efforts to turn this discovery into a useful treatment for cancer.
Don’t forget, there are just four weeks left before the long-awaited New Scientist Live, being held in Manchester on 12 and 13 March, with a day just for schools on 14 March. If you come along, please find me to say hello. I want to put some selfies with Health Check readers into the following week’s email. And if you can’t make it, you can watch all the talks online.
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