Scientists are creating spinal cord implants that could help paralyzed people walk

The technology restored mobility in mice. Could humans be next?

Nazar Abbas Photography/Moment/Getty Images

When I was a kid, I fantasized about a future in which science would have solved the whole world’s health problems. But like the jet pack that I also assumed I would have by now, that future just hasn’t materialized. Still, science is making some amazing progress in helping people with spinal cord injuries — a field that’s historically been very challenging forge forward in. Scientists are now testing a spinal cord implant in mice that may help people who are paralyzed walk again.

A paper released this morning in the journal Advanced Science detailed the development of the technology and laid out plans for upcoming clinical trials. Scientists used human tissue samples in a process that mimics the development of the spinal cord in embryos to create 3D implants. This is how it works: Scientists take the human tissue samples, use a process that stimulates them to become embryonic stem cells, and then uses those stem cells to create what is essentially a personalized implant made out of an individual’s own cells.

With this technology, scientists can eventually create personalized implants for people who need them, which they hope will reduce implant rejection. This is a really big deal. Apparently, one of the major obstacles scientists — and patients — have faced in their attempts to repair damaged spinal cords is the body’s natural tendency to reject anything foreign. Since these implants can be created out of an individual’s own cells, rejection becomes a lot less likely.

“Our goal is to produce personalised spinal cord implants for every paralysed person, enabling regeneration of the damaged tissue with no risk of rejection,” Tal Dvir, a nanotechnology researcher, leader of the team that is developing the project and professor at at the Sagol Centre for Regenerative Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University, told Bloomberg. To be clear, researchers haven’t used these implants in any humans, yet, but they had an 80% success rate using the implants to restore the ability to walk in paralzed lab mice, according to the study.

Nothing in scientific advances has made me feel as weepy as little paralyzed mice finally being able to walk. Nothing except the possibility that this could potentially work in humans, too. “The model animals underwent a rapid rehabilitation process, at the end of which they could walk quite well,” Dvir told Bloomberg. “This is the first instance in the world in which implanted engineered human tissues have generated recovery in an animal model for long-term chronic paralysis – which is the most relevant model for paralysis treatments in humans.”

Right now, researchers are preparing for human trials and are hoping that this life-changing science will be available to those who need it within the next few years. What could this mean? Well, for one thing, this technology could make it possible for people to recover more fully from spinal cord injury, Dvir told Bloomberg. For some people with paralysis, it could mean that they walk again.

“Individuals injured at a very young age are destined to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, bearing all the social, financial, and health-related costs of paralysis,” Dvir told Bloomberg. “There are millions of people around the world who are paralysed due to spinal injury, and there is still no effective treatment for their condition.” While there have been promising spinal cord stimulation implants that have had some success, there has never been such a personalized treatment for spinal cord injuries. These researchers deserve all the props because this is even better than a jetpack.