A Real Therapy to Help Victims of Paralysis

By Dave Andrusko

Irony of ironies. The headline is “Electrical stimulation helps paralyzed man,” and the Washington Post reporter who tells us about Rob Summers is the same Post reporter who recently wrote two glowing articles touting the possible benefits to the first patient to receive an infusion of a drug made of human embryonic stem cells. (See here and here.)

Rob Summers

I have no particular expertise here, so let make a few observations. We obviously hope the subject of Stein’s earlier two stories—Timothy J. Atchinson—improves. But there is nothing in the history of stem cells harvested from human embryo that would make you think he will improve. (For the record, “The trial is primarily assessing safety,” Stein wrote, “but doctors are also testing whether the cells restore sensation and movement.” The “safety” issue refers to side effects, such as the tendency of these transplants to turn cancerous.)

But Atchinson was irresistible to the Post, not only because he allowed his identity to become public but also because “a treatment condemned on moral and religious grounds is viewed by the first person to pioneer the therapy, and by his family, as part of God’s plan.” (Never mind, for now, that he had been fed a line of hooey.)

Rob Summers has actually made progress; it’s not all theoretical and it also has no moral entanglements. Here are the key explanatory paragraphs.

“But after becoming the first patient to undergo an experimental treatment, he can now do something no one else in his condition has ever been able to do: stand up, move his hips, knees and ankles, wiggle his toes and even take a few steps, Summers and his doctors announced Thursday. …

“Researchers previously have been able to use electrical stimulation of muscles to produce some movement in patients with spinal cord injuries. But Summers marks the first time any paralyzed patient has regained the ability to consciously move parts of his or her body by direct stimulation of the spinal cord, which apparently reactivates the nerve circuits that remain intact. …

“The treatment involves surgically implanting a small strip of electrodes along the lower spinal cord that sends electrical signals designed to mimic those that had been sent by the brain to stimulate movement. The approach was tried on Summers after years of studies in animals indicated that such stimulation could reactivate communication between the brain and paralyzed limbs.”

Everybody is properly cautious. This is not a “cure” nor will it necessarily work on others with more severe injuries.

But this offers far more promise than embryonic stem cells and should be lauded on practical and ethical grounds.

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