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Miami Researchers Offer Hope To Spinal Injury Patients - 2004-05-25

Research scientists in Miami, Florida have developed a new treatment that allows rats with spinal cord injuries to regain most of their ability to walk again.

Researchers at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a center for spinal cord injury research that is part of the University of Miami School of Medicine, say the treatment results are the best they have seen in 15 years of studying spinal cord injuries.

Paralysis researchers say they used a combination therapy on rats that had spinal cord injuries about halfway down their spines, the kind of injury that frequently causes paraplegia in humans.

The combination therapy involves three injections: First, the drug rolipram, which has been used as anti-depressant, is injected into the damaged spinal cord area. Then, two million Schwann cells, which form a cover or sheath on peripheral nerves, are injected into the area. Finally, doses of a molecule called cyclic adenosine monophosphate, or camp, are also injected into the area. The camp molecules act as a sort of messenger, which tell nerve cells to reproduce in the injured area. The treatment helps promote the growth of axons, or nerve fiber, which would normally be inhibited by an injury to the spine.

When the combination therapy was used on laboratory rats, the rats regained 70 percent of their ability to use their hind legs. The animals also showed a dramatic improvement in motor control involved in the use of their limbs.

Damien Pearse, a lead researcher in the four-year project, says the research results show gains in a number of areas of spinal cord research.

"I am very excited about these results," he said. "These are the best results I have seen in spinal cord injury research, from the research I have been conducting at the Miami Project. Because of the multitude of benefits yielded by this research it is very exciting."

Dr. Pearse says the next step in the research process is to see whether the combination treatment can be replicated in an independent lab and to see what effect the therapy might have on chronic injuries. The treatment is applied at the time of injury and there is no data on whether it will have any effect on old spinal cord injuries. So far no humans have been involved in the research trials, but Dr. Pearse says some aspects of the treatment, specifically the use of the drug rolipram, could be used on humans in the near future.

"Some facets of this particular therapy may be realized sooner than others," said Dr. Pearse. "Rolipram which is one of the drugs that was used in the study showed by itself some protective benefits after spinal cord injury androlipram is a drug which has been used clinically in other disorders. So,some of the protective effects may be realized sooner than some of the growth effects of this treatment."

There are an estimated 250,000 victims of spinal cord injury in the United States and millions more around the world suffer from the debilitating effects of spinal cord injuries. Mark Buoniconti has been a quadriplegic since he suffered an injury playing college football in 1985. The Miami-area activist for spinal cord research says the results from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis have made him optimistic for a better life.

"The percentage of increase was very dramatic," said Mr. Buoniconti. "We are very used to growing cells and nerves, but a 500 percent increase in improvement in growth with nerves and cells, that is a giant leap. I am very excited about this news and I think it will be able to help people. We are going to be able to improve on this and keep working towards our goals."

Mr. Buoniconti says he never expects to be able to get up out of his wheel chair and run like the athlete he used to be. He says the best he can hope for is someday to have the ability to regain some motor control over his limbs that will allow him to lead a more independent life. Mark Buoniconti says the research results from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis has now given him and other victims of spinal cord injuries that hope.