Professor Juanita Anders, lead researcher on the project at the Uniformed Services University Of The Health Sciences in Maryland, and Dr. Kimberly and Dr. Kimberley Byrnes hold a rat which had its spinal cord cut and then, for the first time in history, repaired.
The walking again dream of hundreds of thousands of people forced to live their lives in wheelchairs because of spinal injuries may now become a reality. A medical researcher working for the US Military has developed a way to rejoin severed spinal cords without surgery.
LASER REJOINS SPINE
By Noel Young
WASHINGTON - Superman star Christopher Reeve, who died in October at 52, had been told that a cure might become available within 12 months for the paralysis he suffered after a riding accident.
In Israel last year he was told that this was possible using a combination of laser and stem cell therapy.
In the US , scientists have already successfully used low-powered lasers to repair severed spinal cords in rats and believe the work can be successfully translated to humans.
The first-ever successful rejoining of a mammal’s spinal cord without surgery has already taken place at an American military university, raising hopes that paralysed people may be able to walk again.
Remarkably the initial funding for the research came from Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars budget.
Now the technique in which low-powered lasers were used to repair the spinal cords of paralysed rats - restoring the animals’ mobility - is set to be tested on human beings.
Professor Juanita Anders, the lead researcher on the project at the Uniformed Services University in Maryland, said some of the advances in the field of light therapy were “almost too incredible to believe.”
But she added, “We are creatures of light. Light cures spinal cord injury. I don’t want to say ‘ we have done it in rats’ . . . but we have.”
At the moment the university researchers are concentrating on acute injuries - injuries which have just happened - as opposed to long-term chronic injuries. But they are confident that the more complex treatment of old injuries - such as that sustained by Christopher Reeve in 1995 - is also within their grasp.
Dr Jackson Streeter, whose San Diego firm has now licensed the technology developed by Professor Anders said, “ If we could have lasered Christopher Reeve in the days immediately after his injuries, he might have been walking today.”
The US university where the laser work has been carried out - funded by the US Defense department - has 900 students , the majority in uniform, most of whom receive free medical training in return for a pledge to serve time in the armed forces. It is on the same heavily guarded campus as Bethesda Naval Hospital where president Bush gets his medicals.
The laser breakthrough work was carried out by Professor Anders, her associate Dr Kimberley Byrnes and six other team members. Using the lasers, provided by a small British company,Thor International, the team was able to restore complete mobility to 10 white laboratory rats who had previously had their spinal cords cut.
Ten other rats who also had their cords cut to act as the “control” in the experiment were not given the light treatment and made no recovery. “The 10 animals chosen received daily doses of light for about 50 minutes a day for two weeks, “ said Professor Anders. “Nine weeks later when they were tested, they had recovered their mobility.”
At a neuroscience conference in New Orleans - with 28,000 attendees, the world's largest and most influential gathering of its kind - 28-year-old Dr Kimberley Byrnes made a poster presentation on the work which brought her a Ph.D.
Dr Byrnes said, “The inspiration is Dr Anders. She guided me and mentored me and kept me going in the right direction.”
Professor Anders explained how the project started 17 years ago with with funding from Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme. Professor Anders said, “We were called to a conference and asked to put up bio projects involving the use of lasers. My project won funding of $60,000 a year and we were on our way.”
Anders first established that low-powered laser seemed to have the ability to regenerate cells in facial paralysis. Eventually her work led to spinal cord injuries, which have until now been catastrophic for humans and animals because the nerves in the central nervous system fail to regenerate, leaving the victim paralysed.
Kimberley Byrnes joined the Anders team five years ago, as a post graduate student determined to work on light therapy. She knew what the problems were with spinal injuries.
“Things are made even worse because when the immune system kicks in, it causes greater impairment then the initial injury," said Dr Byrnes. “However light therapy had already proved effective in skin nerve regeneration. And we knew that light had the ability to suppress at least partly the immune system.”
The challenge facing the scientists was to decide just what wavelength of light might be effective - and how to establish that it was actually penetrating the flesh and reaching the broken spinal cord.
That was where the lasers produced by the tiny Thor company came into their own. Thor employs just three people at Argyllshire in Scotland,designing and building the instruments.. Three more staff at its adminstrative and marketing HQ in Amersham in Bucks make up the workforce.
Having settled on a wavelength close to infrared, the scientists had to find out if the light did actually penetrate the rats’bodies to the depth of the cord - something other doctors strongly doubted. To measure their success in reaching the broken spinal cord, the Anders team used a hypodermic to insert a fiber optic cable no thicker than a fishing line into the animals’ backs.
“This was the nearest thing to invasive surgery that we carried out," said professor Anders. And once we established that the light was reaching the wound, we didn’t have to do it again.
“We would cut the spinal cords, sew the animals back up, close the wound, put the light right over the injury site, for 50 minutes a day for 14 days.”
Two months after the surgery and the laser treatment, the success of the therapy was put to the test. Previously the white rats could cross a shiny ladder about two feet long in just ten seconds. After their spinal cord was partially cut their feet splayed akwardly in different directions and it took the animals twice as long - 20 seconds - to cross the ladder.
Nine weeks later, the rats who had had the light treatment again set out to cross the ladder. They took 10 seconds - back to where they had been before the operation.
“We had done it," said Professor Anders. “We had for the first time ever successfully restored function to a severed spinal cord."
Professor Anders said they still did not fully understand the mechanism, in much the same way that the mechanism of acupuncture is not understood.
“But we believe the light somehow alters the behaviour of the cells, inhibiting the immune system and allowing the neurons that make up the spinal cord to regroup. Using coloured dyes, Dr Byrnes established that neurons were indeed making the return journey over the old break in the spinal cord.
Israel has long been a leader in laser therapy and last summer Christopher Reeve flew there to see the progress the scientists and doctors there were making on spinal cord injury. He had private meetings with the specialists as well as public visits to the labs and hospitals.
One of the leading doctors Semion Rochkind, of Tel Aviv University, told me he had informed Mr. Reeve that a cure for his paralysis could be as little as two years away - using a combination of laser and stem cell technology.
Anders admires the work done in Israel. “However, what they are planning is very complex and it involves invasive surgery. The beauty of what we are proposing is its very simplicity."
The lab team is now working on human cadavers, testing the ability of the light to reach the spinal cord in a human. “So far the results are encouraging,” said Prof Anders.
Under the technology transfer system that operates in the US between the military and private companies , Dr Jackson Streeter’s firm, PhotoThera, of San Diego, is likely to carry out the very first clinical trials. Dr. Streeter will be concentrating initially on treatment of strokes but is aiming for the beginning of 2005 to start the first ever repair of human spinal cord injuries.
Copyright by Edit International
More photos >