Jasper: The Dog Who's Walking Again After Cell Therapy

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is "The World."  This next story is pretty remarkable, even miraculous. A team of scientists in England has reversed paralysis of the hind legs in a group of dogs with spinal injuries, and they have done so by transplanting nose cells into the injured spinal cords. This is the first successful effort to repair spinal injuries in an animal other than laboratory animals like mice and rats. The team's findings were published in the journal, "Brain."  Professor Robin Franklin is one of the authors of the study; he is a stem cell biologist at Cambridge University in England. Nose and spine don't seem to have any connection to me, why nose cells Professor Franklin?

Robin Franklin: So the reason we used nose cells is that because the part of the nervous system that deals with the special sense of smell turns out to be extremely good at regenerating. They regenerate very efficiently because of the properties of these cells, called olfactory ensheathing cells, that associate with olfactory nerve fibers. So, what we've tried to do is to harness this ability, the olfactory ensheathing cells, to support nerve growth in the olfactory system to try and promote nerve growth in the spinal cord where nerves don't normally regrow after injury.

Werman: I see. So, these cells produce nerve cells in the nose but when put in the spine they'd be doing something they'd be doing in the nose anyway. Now, tell us about one of the experiments is with a dog called Jasper, and in the pretty extraordinary video, you know anybody who's ever seen a dog that doesn't have the use of its hind legs, they kind of have to walk around in a harness and it's the front legs that are kind of propelling them. So, that's what happened to Jasper, what did you do to him and what were the results?

Franklin: So Jasper is, as you might imagine, from the treatment group. We had two groups of dogs, all of them with chronic long-term paraplegia, that's to say loss of their hind limb function. There was no recovery at all in the group of dogs that didn't have any cells transplanted, but in the group that did, there was quite a spectrum of outcomes. At the less optimistic end of the spectrum there were dogs that really not so different from the controls, but at the other end of the spectrum there were dogs such as Jasper, you described, that were able to regain some walking action in their hind limb. But most significantly, that walking action in the hind limb was now coordinated with the walking action in the front legs. So that implies that we've done something beneficial in the damaged spinal cord between the parts that deal with the front legs and the parts that deal with the back legs.

Werman: So people who have dogs with spinal injuries, I imagine would be delighted about this discovery. Is this going to be made available for wider use in veterinary hospitals?

Franklin: Well it certainly could be. This is an advancement in veterinary therapy, but perhaps more significantly, it's also a stepping stone between laboratory studies and future human studies in that it's a way of testing in a clinical situation where the promising laboratory studies are going to be worth investing or pursuing in human trials.

Werman: Right. Well that's where I was going to go next, because I imagine anybody who has some level of paraplegia would be really excited by what this might promise. How far away are we from this having any effect on humans?

Franklin: Yeah, so what our study shows is that there's certainly a case for proceeding with human trials. In fact, some human olfactory ensheathing cells transplantation into spinal injury in people has taken place in different places around the world already. What's never been done though is this controlled study that we did on dogs to show that it's actually effective. So having proven that, I think there is a green light for proceeding with human trials, but we've two caveats. One's that the recovery isn't always going to be consistent, and the second caveat is that when you damage the spinal cord you lose many functions, not just the ability to walk. So you lose, for example, the ability to control the bowel and the bladder and those functions weren't restored in the dogs. So, this isn't a complete cure for spinal cord injuries. So that'll require multi-components approach. What we've shown is that the, at least one of those components is likely to be effective to a degree.

Werman: Professor Robin Franklin at the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Cambridge University. Professor Franklin, thank you very much for your time.

Franklin: Thank you.

Werman: You can watch a video of Jasper, that dog in Dr. Franklin's experiment, before and after his nose cell transplant. Just come to theworld.org.