Scientists have already discovered that nose cells might be useful in treating spinal cord injuries and aiding nerve regeneration. But now researchers at Cambridge University have conducted a study to prove the potential of the technique by transplanting olfactory ensheathing cells to help dogs regain the use of their paralyzed back legs, according to BBC Health. Although the study was significant in the recovery of dogs, scientists remain hopeful that this technique will provide some benefits in the treatment of human spinal cord injuries in the future.
In adults, the olfactory system is the only part of the body where nerve fibers continue to grow. Olfactory ensheathing cells promote the replacement of nerve cells, which help us smell and convey those signals to the brain. Similarly to how the OECs form a communication pathway between the nose and brain, the OECs can help form a bridge between damaged and undamaged spinal cord tissue.
Researchers conducted a study that is the first to test the transplant in “real-life” injuries as opposed to laboratory animals. Thirty-four pet dogs that suffered from spinal cord injuries and couldn’t use their back legs were used for the study, and none were injured deliberately for the use of research. The study was double blind, so the researchers didn’t know which 23 dogs were injected with OECs and which were part of the control group. Each month, the dogs were tested for neurological function and walked on a treadmill as researchers assessed their progress.
Dogs who were treated with OEC experienced significant improvement, and those that were injected with a placebo fluid did not regain use of their back legs. Although the nerve connections were only generated over short distances, the treated dogs were able to move their previously paralyzed limbs in coordination with their front legs.
Scientists explain that although the dogs experience success from this treatment, it’s more likely that the technique might be used as part of a combination of treatments. It could also be significant for humans by possibly helping spinal injury patients regain their sexual function and bladder control. The man who discovered OECs in 1985 and is the chair of Neural Regeneration at University College London, explained his cautious and hopeful perspective on the study: “This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans – that could still be a long way off. But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road towards it.”