Australia

New technology enables paraplegic patients to walk again

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Three patients with spinal cord injuries have been able to walk again thanks to a new scientific breakthrough.

David M'zee was told he would never be able to walk again after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a sporting accident seven years ago.

But thanks to groundbreaking technology, the 30-year-old Swiss man can now walk unassisted for short periods of time.

"To me it means a lot," he told the BBC. "I think you've got to do the impossible to make the possible, possible. It feels very good."

Spinal cord injuries occur when the bones of the spine damage the spinal cord, interrupting the nerves that carry messages from the brain to various parts of the body.

When the cord is damaged, there can be nerve fibres which remain but are simply too weak to carry the nerve signals.

In this new experiment, led by Dr Grégoire Courtine at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), a device providing electrical stimulation is implanted just below the point of the spinal injury.

Spinal cord injuries occur when the bones of the spine damage the cord, interrupting the nerves that carry messages from the brain to various parts of the body.
Spinal cord injuries occur when the bones of the spine damage the cord, interrupting the nerves that carry messages from the brain to various parts of the body.
Universal Images Group Editorial

The stimulator elevates the spinal cord so that the nerves become more responsive to the very few signals that are still coming through the injury site.

This means messages can be sent from the brain to the previously immobile body parts, allowing people like David M'Zee and another two patients to walk again.

Director for the Centre of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Bryce Vissel, said the results are exciting.

"It's very, very sophisticated and very, very complicated but absolutely brilliant," he said. "It was that tweaking of the technology, first invented by Professor Harold Edgerton's group in California, that allowed this major breakthrough."

Depending on where the injury is on the spinal cord, a person can lose function of their legs, arms, hands or lungs.

There can also be a loss of temperature control, bowel and bladder control, or sexual function.

Professor Vissel says this new technology being tested in Switzerland could lead to improvements for people with all of these disabilities.

"One of the steps of we're trying to do at UTS and our goal is to take this current level of technology and see if we can achieve a multiple system effect," he said.

Professor of Bionics at the University of Wollongong, Robert Kapsa, works with nerve regeneration.

While his research is still in the early stages, there is hope it could lead to a way where damaged nerves are reconnected so mobility is restored for people with a spinal cord injury.

But Professor Kapsa said funding needs to be better managed in Australia to help these projects achieve results.

"When you look at overseas groups that are funded very, very strongly for work that is at this early stage," he said. "There's a much higher possibility of translating it, if you are able to fund the work."

"Unfortunately, I think in Australia there is a deficiency in funding circles," he said.

Professor Bryce Vissel from UTS agrees more funding is necessary.

"The government purses are not always as open as they need to be," he said. "Certainly I think there needs to be a greater understanding of the need to allow different ideas to be pursued and take risks."

Professor Vissel said caution is needed over the new developments in Switzerland because there are still questions about who can actually benefit from the technology.

But he said he is very optimistic this first step will be one of many.

"I think that we can say to these people with injury now that this is real, the hope is real," he said.

"Hang in there because now you can expect a very good chance in your immediate lifetime the possibility exists for you to benefit from this technology."

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