Restoring movement in those who have had spinal cord injuries is the goal of a new centre in Sydney, with treatment based on innovative research finding success in the US.
Steve Ralph fractured his C4 vertebrae in December 2017 after diving into a swimming pool and hitting his head on a submerged shelf.
“The initial moments after the accident were a massive shock,” the 27-year-old from the Sydney suburb of Berowra told Small Business Secrets.
“Waking up in the intensive care unit I remember hearing some pretty bad news, that I’d be unlikely to ever walk again. I remember them saying I’d be lucky to be able to get off the ventilator or even feed myself, let alone walk.”
“There’s only one worse phone call a mother could get,” Steve’s mother Janelle said.
Steve is one of more than 10,000 Australians living with paralysis from spinal cord injury.
He has undergone several surgeries on his spine and regular therapy has helped improve his hand function. He uses a wheelchair to get around.
Steve now hopes to be among the first group in Australia offered promising new treatment at the Centre for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at UTS.
The centre's innovative treatment will be based on decades of research at the University of California Los Angeles, led by Reggie Edgerton, a pioneer in electrical stimulation.
Professor Edgerton's research indicates that some connections in the spinal cord remain intact, even for those with severe damage. The treatment works by placing electrodes on the skin, along the spinal cord, to amplify signals being sent across the injured section.
Medical trials of electrical stimulation in US and Europe were this week examined in the science journal Nature.
After final approvals are granted, electrical stimulation trials in Australia will continue international research that has achieved a response in more than 20 subjects so far, moving legs and hands in ways never thought possible.
“We took the worst case, someone with whom they said nothing could happen, especially after one year, and we tried these basic techniques ... and the experiments brought it [movement] out,” Professor Edgerton said.
“Another five subjects we tested recovered some voluntary control within four sessions, and some showed voluntary effort after just one session, after being paralysed for between one and four years.”
This treatment may also have implications for people suffering the effects of a stroke, even Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimers.
The head of the Centre for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine, Professor Bryce Vissel, said Steve would be a good candidate for treatment, but could give no guarantee that he’d be selected from hundreds of applicants for the initial trials expected to begin in February 2020.
He hopes the new centre will eventually be able to treat up to 10 spinal cord injury patients each day, requiring a large staff, and millions of dollars in external funding.
“What’s unique about this institution is that it allows us to study multiple interventions that we think will result in improvements that have not been seen in individuals with severe spinal cord injury,” he said.
“My hope is that with changes in technology, one day I’ll be able to walk again” Steve said during a tour of the facilities.
Until then, he has the full support of those around him.
“Steve is a fighter and I always knew he would get the best possible outcome from a bad situation,” his mother said.
In Melbourne, former vet nurse Rhiannon Tracey is also finding success with new approaches to spinal cord injury recovery.
A decade ago, she was told she would have little chance of walking again when diagnosed a C5 quadriplegic following a swimming pool accident in Bali.
The 30-year-old can now walk short distances unassisted.
“When I hit my head in the pool I knew something wasn’t right but I didn’t think I had broken my neck and back two months before my 21st birthday,” she said.
“When I was in hospital in Denpasar, Bali suffered one of the biggest earthquakes ever. I remember saying to my mum, ‘we are all going to die tonight’ as she hovered over me protecting me from falling rubble”.
Rhiannon’s travel insurance later paid for her evacuation to hospital in Australia where she underwent further surgeries.
She now runs a small not-for-profit centre in Melbourne, to help others recovering from similar injuries.
"I have collected the modalities that I have tried and have complemented my own recovery and have incorporated them into what we offer here,” she said.
“We have seen people walking again, including one patient who had been wheelchair bound for six years after a spinal cord injury.”
Patient Benjamin George Jankovski was in a car accident that left him with spinal damage.
“I am at the stage now where I can stand unassisted for about 30 seconds," the 18 year old said.
"And when I first came here I couldn’t do that."
“We get a lot of young people in here aged between 14-24, a common time for injuries,” Rhiannon said.
“Through treatment, a range of exercises and diet we see people really getting their lives back, being able to study and go to university.”
“It’s really given me a purpose, and a reason to get up every day.”
“Everything happens for a reason. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have a spinal cord injury, I would hope to be doing something incredible, but it wouldn’t be impacting the lives that I am impacting now.”