Darek Fidyka, a Polish firefighter, lost all feeling and control of his legs when his spine was cut in a knife attack four years ago. Now he is able to walk once more thanks to a pioneering medical procedure that involved transplanting nerve cells from his nose to his spine.
Fidyka was stabbed repeatedly, with one of the cuts going nearly all the way through his spine, says the Washington Post. The attack left him “paralysed from the chest down,” says the BBC, who spent a year following Fidyka's treatment and recovery.
“Before the treatment, Mr Fidyka had been paralysed for nearly two years and had shown no sign of recovery despite many months of intensive physiotherapy,” says the BBC. A surgical procedure that involved transplanting specialized cells from Fidyka's own nose—cells known as “olfactory ensheathing glia cells”—to fill the cut in his spine now has him walking with a support frame.
According to a 2008 study, olfactory ensheathing cells work as guides for the growth of new neurons. “This guidance property of OECs led to the suggestion that isolation and transplantation of these cells could promote axonal regeneration in the injured spinal cord,” the authors of that study wrote.
This approach had already been shown to work in rodents. Now, Fidyka's story suggests the process can also work in people.
According to the BBC, “[t]he scientists believe the OECs provided a pathway to enable fibres above and below the injury to reconnect, using the nerve grafts to bridge the gap in the cord.”
According to the 2008 study, more than 11,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries each year in the United States alone. Fidyka's story is a great first step down the road to reversing damage from spinal cord injuries and a potential sign of what's to come.