A breakthrough study on paralyzed dogs in England has many people hopeful that scientists can use their findings to assist disabled humans.
Researchers at Cambridge University in England recently studied the effects of a novel cell transplant procedure on 34 dogs with paralyzed hind legs. According to an ABC News story, the researchers at Cambridge collected olfactory "ensheathing" cells from the dogs' noses, cultured them in Petri dishes for 3-5 weeks and then injected them into the dogs' spines.
The olfactory ensheathing cells allow smell signals to travel directly to the brain by communicating between the central and peripheral nervous system. While the new cells didn't restore communication between the brain and the hind legs, they did restore mobility and coordination to the legs.
The results of the study were published in the neurology journal Brain.
Spinal cord researcher Naomi Kleitman, who was not involved in the study, told ABC News that the cells somehow helped the dogs improve their walking.
"For those dogs that had the cells, something about having those cells in their spinal cord made them walk better, a little better, but not as if they were never injured," said Kleitman, the vice president of research at the Craig H. Nielsen Foundation. "It's a phenomenon, and we need to learn more about how this can happen."
Scientists say it is still difficult to determine how much and in what ways the cells assisted the dogs in walking. Even more challenging, some researchers say, is finding a way to apply these results to humans with spinal cord injuries.
"This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans -- that could still be a long way off," Geoffrey Raisman, chair of Neural Regeneration at University College London, told the BBC. "But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road toward it."
If nothing else, owners of paralyzed dogs have a reason to be optimistic. May Hay, whose 10-year-old dachshund participated in the Cambridge study, said her once-paralyzed dog is like a new pet.
"Now, he whizzes around the house and garden and is able to keep up with the other dogs," Hay told the BBC. "It's wonderful."