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Body's Own Blood Cells Used to Fight Spinal Cord Injury

WebMD Health News

July 25, 2001 -- Days after Melissa Holley emerged from an auto accident last year completely paralyzed from the chest down, she was flown to Israel. There, she became the first recipient of a revolutionary new procedure using the body's own natural mechanisms to rebuild and rejuvenate the spinal cord.

Today, though still in a wheelchair, the 19-year-old Colorado resident has regained some movement in her legs, and some sensation in her bladder. She receives periodic rehabilitation therapy at Craig Hospital, in Englewood, Colo., and recently began trying on leg braces, according to a hospital spokesman who calls her progress "remarkable."

But how much of Holley's progress can be directly attributed to the new procedure and how much would have occurred naturally is difficult to know. And experts in Israel and the U.S. are quick to point out that the new procedure is not likely to be a "cure" for severe spinal cord injury. Rather, it may offer advances such as increased leg strength, or the ability to control the bladder, that can vastly improve the health and quality of life for paralyzed patients, they say.

Valentin Fulga, MD, of Proneuron Biotechnologies, in Tel Aviv, Israel, where the procedure was performed, tells WebMD the new procedure makes use of the injury-fighting potential of the body's own white blood cells.

Those cells, which normally help fight injury and inflammation in other parts of the body, are not plentiful in the spinal cord. But by removing white blood cells from the blood, they can be "trained" in the laboratory to do for the central nervous system what they do so well elsewhere: Repair damaged tissue and promote new growth of cells. Then, the newly "activated" cells are injected into the injured spinal cord, he says.

Since Holley's operation last year, the experimental procedure has been performed on three other completely paralyzed individuals, as part of a clinical study approved by the U.S. FDA and the Israeli Ministry of Health.

Fulga declined to comment on the progress of other patients in the study, except to say, "we are encouraged by the results so far."

Regarding the progress that Holley has made, he acknowledges that some of it may have occurred naturally anyway. "But if we see similar progress in more patients, we can probably conclude that the therapy is having an effect," says Fulga, who is senior vice president of development for Proneuron.

Fulga says the company is seeking more patients to undergo the procedure, and will pay the costs of transportation to Israel. The procedure must be done within 14 days of injury. Interested individuals can contact Proneuron by calling 011 972 8 9409550.

Edward Benzel, MD, director of spinal disorders at the Cleveland Clinic, says the Clinic is involved in negotiations with Proneuron to act as a partner in studying the new procedure. "It is unlikely that this procedure will be a miraculous cure, but it can potentially offer recovery that will improve overall health and quality of life," he tells WebMD.

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