Tobi is a six-year-old cocker spaniel whose hind legs were paralyzed after he suffered a herniated disc in his spine. Although Tobi will never fully regain the use of his legs, he has benefitted from a clinical trial involving stem cell transplantation in dogs that is currently underway at North Carolina State University.
NC State neurologist Dr. Natasha Olby specializes in researching treatments for long-term paralysis in dogs. According to Olby, even in the case of severe spinal cord injury all may not be lost in terms of spinal cord function – there may still be salvageable, living nerves and nerve fibers, or axons, bridging the site of the injury that could still transmit signals if they had a little help.
Obviously, researchers would love to be able to replace all the lost neurons and axons and restore normal connections in a damaged spinal cord. But that sort of treatment isn’t yet possible. On the other hand, targeting surviving nerves and axons that are still crossing the site of the injury and restoring their conductivity is more attainable.
Often, these damaged nerves have lost the myelin sheath, fatty material that coats axons and allows them to conduct signals. Olby wants to restore the myelin sheath to these surviving axons by taking fat cells from the patient and turning them into stem cells that can be combined with nerve cells and injected into the site of the damage, regrowing the sheath. Even though she is still in the early stages of a randomized clinical trial, the results thus far are encouraging.
Dogs like Tobi won’t be the only beneficiaries of Olby’s research. If the therapy produces positive results in dogs, then translating the treatment to humans is a natural next step. And in humans, even very small improvements have the capacity to radically transform quality of life.
“Even if this procedure produced an effect in a person as small as giving him or her partial control of one finger, that could allow the patient to use a computer, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of communication and interaction with the outside world,” Olby says.
Olby’s research is funded by the Morris Animal Foundation.