Darek Fidyka was left paralysed following a knife attack in 2010 that severed his spinal cord. He told the BBC that walking again was 'an incredible feeling'. 'When you can't feel almost half your body, you are helpless, but when it starts coming back it's like you were born again,' he said. As well as the surgery, Mr Fidyka has also undergone an intensive physiotherapy programme, and he has now regained muscle mass and movement, as well as some bladder, bowel and sexual function.
His recovery was the result of research led by Professor Geoffrey Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London, and Dr Pawel Tabakow, a consultant neurosurgeon at Wroclaw University Hospital, Poland. Professor Raisman described the achievement as being 'more impressive than man walking on the moon'.
The transplantation used olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) – specialised nerve cells that are part of the system which gives us our sense of smell; the olfactory system. A unique property of these cells is that they have the ability to regenerate, unlike other nerve cells.
Neurosurgeons removed one of the man's own olfactory bulbs (an area at the base of the brain, rich in these cells), and cultured OECs in the laboratory. Two weeks later, the cells were injected above and below the injury, and strips of nerve fibres were taken from his ankle and placed across the gap, aiming to form a bridge that the cells could grow across.
Using the man's own cells means that rejection by his immune system was not a concern, and immunosuppressive drugs are not required. There were also no other reported complications, such as provoking pain or further deterioration of the spinal cord.
Although these results are promising, scientists have noted that we must be cautious until they can be repeated in further patients. Dr Dusko Ilic, senior lecturer in stem cell science, King's College London, stated: 'Although the achievement is indeed revolutionary, this approach worked only in one patient so far. It is known from published animal studies that in some cases transplantation of OECs led to marked improvements, whereas in other cases not.We need to enrol more people in the study to get a better idea how reliable and repeatable this approach is.'