“Smell Cell” Transplant Helps Paralyzed Man Walk Again

A Polish man who was paralyzed from the chest down can now walk again—all because he has a nose.

Surgeons in Poland, in collaboration with Geoff Raisman of the University College London’s Institute of Neurology and his colleagues, injected olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) into patient Darek Fidyka’s spinal cord, which had been severed in a violent stabbing four years ago. Since then, he had endured countless hours of physical therapy with no visible sign of progress.

But Raisman’s technique, based on 40 years studying spinal cord repair, seems to have changed that. In earlier studies, Raisman demonstrated that injecting OECs into a rat’s spinal cord could reverse paralysis. In 2005, he decided to team up with Polish neurosurgeons to see if this procedure is possible in humans.

nose-smell
Olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) are found in the the olfactory bulbs, neural structures involved in the sense of smell.

Fidyka is the first patient to see significant improvement after receiving the “smell cell” transplant. After six months of post-operation physical therapy, he took his first steps along parallel bars with the support of leg braces and trained assistants. Now, two years after the transplant, Fidyka can walk around using only the braces.

OECs are special cells that allow the olfactory system to renew its cells throughout a person’s life. They reside inside the olfactory bulbs, two neural structures positioned at the front of the brain near the nose. Scientists believe that because OECs enable nerve fibers to constantly regenerate, an OEC transplant helped the fibers above and below Fidyka’s injury to stitch themselves together. Unlike many other transplant surgeries, there was no danger of his body rejecting the cells since they were from his own brain.

Here’s Fergus Walsh, writing for BBC News:

In the first of two operations, surgeons removed one of the patient’s olfactory bulbs and grew the cells in culture.

Two weeks later they transplanted the OECs into the spinal cord, which had been cut through in the knife attack apart from a thin strip of scar tissue on the right. They had just a drop of material to work with – about 500,000 cells.

About 100 micro-injections of OECs were made above and below the injury.

Four thin strips of nerve tissue were taken from the patient’s ankle and placed across an 8mm (0.3in) gap on the left side of the cord.

Raisman and his colleagues want to treat 10 more patients using this technique at no cost. Someday, perhaps a greater portion of the 3 million people who have suffered from paralysis worldwide could benefit from this innovative new process.