Friday, May 8, 2015

Helping The Paralyzed Walk Again

When I was in my 20s, in the mid 70s, I was a dedicated fan of the Miami Dolphins.  With a powerful offense led by "the thinking man's quarterback" Bob Griese, and the "No-Name" defense led by linebacker Nick Buoniconti, they were one of the dominant teams of the era.  As we do with actors, we tend to feel we get to know players and think of them as a sort of long-distance friend.  Nick Buoniconti was a friend of mine, in that sense. 

Fast forward to 1985 and retired Nick has a son, Marc, who starts playing in major college football.  At 19 years old, Marc is hit with the worst injury that can happen to a player: he breaks his neck (C3/C4) during a game and is paralyzed for life from the shoulders down.  Nick and Marc form the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.  If it can be done with pure drive and relentless mental toughness, these two will succeed.  Unfortunately, it's much harder than that.

Conventional wisdom is that nerve damage can't be fixed, but there have been some tantalizing hints of nerve growth in limbs.  These larger nerves in body are very much like insulated wires: there is a central nerve tissue, the conductive axons, covered in an insulator called a myelin sheath.  I read one report where by putting a myelin sheath between the ends of severed nerves in a frog's arm, the nerves grew down the myelin tube until they fused and restored motion to the arm.  The spinal cord is whole higher level, though.  There have been very few things that have shown even a little promise for the kind of injury that Marc Buoniconti has.

In this Video from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) we see a promising technique for splicing spinal cords; a patch for the sheath on the spine (called the dura mater) that is flexible, and very highly biocompatible.  As you can see, with this patch in place, rats were able to walk again. 

I've said before that I think the future is in tissue engineering: growing replacements for diseased or degraded body parts, patching defective genes before they cause damage.  Work along those lines.  There's an idea floating around today (which I think comes from Ray Kurzweil) that says if we can survive until the year 2030, we will have the option of immortality.  I'd say no unless spinal cord repair was as reliable as changing a fuse in a car.  I'd say no unless all those annoying things that happen as you age are eradicated.  Things like every old injury turning arthritic, deteriorating hearing, metabolic problems, all the rest.  Not to mention scars from every little cut and injury you get need to stop, lest we turn into one continuous mass of scar tissue.


  1. I have absolutely no doubt that we will eventually be able to repair traumatic neural damage.
    Some animals can lose limbs and grow them back fully functional.
    A man lost the end of a finger, his late brother, a research scientist used him for a guinea pig and got his finger to grow back, nail and all fully functional. The ability to regrow and repair nerves does exist and we will discover how to do it eventually.

  2. Dan, I'm sure you're right. My only concern is how long it will take.

    Sometimes key discoveries lead to a cascade of discoveries of improvement in a field that was very slowly moving. The field suddenly gets very active, settles to a new normal, then no big improvements occur until the next big discovery.

    For example, back in the 80s, the first high temperature superconductors were announced, which led to a rush to newer materials and higher temperature compounds, and then settled out about where it is now. I worked with a Ph.D. physicist who had done superconductor research at the time. He said nobody had investigated those compounds because superconduction was theoretically impossible in them. Suddenly a new theory was developed and the race was on.

    I suspect someone will stumble upon a way to restart the regrowth of limbs, or spinal cords and there will be a period of extremely rapid improvements.

    I hope I live to see it.

  3. "How long?".....the magic question. If I could answer that
    I'd be able to pick the right six numbers and live like a king. It will happen but when is truly anybody's guess.

  4. I have been paralyzed 33 years. Tried several things over the years. T cells sound promising. Problem is the Universities and Corporations want to license a T Cell that is a cure all. They do not want labor intensive solutions. They want a pill or own a T Cell which is sold to the highest bidders. So the medical solutions are difficult. But, the political and money issues are just as vast.

  5. Anon - "But, the political and money issues are just as vast." That's unfortunate, but I'm not surprised. I guess it's always the case that what we can do is dependent on what we can afford.

  6. is a major factor in many issues and medical breakthroughs are no different.
    But that's the capitalist way. It's not pretty nor fair but the most effective way to incentivize someone to seek out the hard answers is the chance to get filthy rich from doing so. It's not fair to the dirt poor guy who can't afford the cure but it's not fair to force someone to do years of research and NOT get rich from it. That's because fundamentally life isn't fair.