Patient with broken spine walks again

It is commonly known that a broken spine (= paraplegia) will cause loss of some if not all motor functions, due to damage of the bone marrow. In many cases it will paralyse a patient. In the US and EU alone over 480.000 people are bound to wheelchairs, due to their spinal injuries and each year, around 24.000 more people join this list.

A new medical breakthrough has now enabled some patients to regain control over their lower extremities with the help of a special probe that is inserted into the bone marrow and powered by an external battery. The electrodes stimulate and reconnect previously dormant nerve pathways and enable the patient to send impulses to their legs, causing them to move again. This medical miracle originates from three EUREKA funded research & development projects (DISPERSE, RESTORE and WALKAGAIN) that built upon each other to create the new technology.

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans have become essential in speedy diagnosis of internal injuries, but often patients are excluded from MRI scans, due to their pre-existing implants. MRIs use strong electromagnetic fields which could potentially pose health risks for patients with existing implants, as well as distorting the final images produced. The Belgian, Dutch and Irish DISPERSE project developed several new products that reduce image distortion, increase safe usage for patients with implants and improved accuracy of the final data.

No spine is the same and the DISPERSE project has enabled Dutch and Swiss partners in the RESTORE project to more accurately image patients’ spines and create probes that correspond perfectly to their individual anatomies, thus allowing them to be inserted in the right way and reconnect nerves so that the patients can walk again.

The WALKAGAIN project took this even further. Epidural Electrical Stimulation (EES) proved effective in animals, but was less effective in humans and still required them to go through extensive rehabilitation therapy. The project’s researchers realised that burst and spatiotemporal stimulation was more effective. Thus, Space-Time specific Epidural Electrical Stimulation (ST-EES) was used to improve the patients’ control and balance, allowing them to walk again freely. To this day, GTX-Medical (formerly G-therapeutics Bv) is the only worldwide provider of an implantable neural stimulation system that restores patients’ abilities to walk again.

On October 31st, 2018, a scientific study on the neurostimulation in paraplegic patients was published in the prestigious journal Nature as well as in Nature Neuroscience. This was widely taken up by almost all Dutch newspapers and was featured in the television night show with Jeroen Pauw on NPO1. GTX Medical (formerly known as G- Therapeutics), UMC and the Sint Maartenskliniek have developed this therapy together with Swiss partners. First results are very promising and have even led to renewed growth of nerve pathways. At the core of this breakthrough are two RVO EZK-funded EUREKA Eurostars projects (RESTORE and WALKAGAIN) with Swiss partners, a EUREKA Penta project (DISPERSE, together with Philips, regarding MRI application) and an Innovation Credit. The total project value of the EUREKA projects together with the international partners with whom this therapy was developed, amounted to 12.2 million euro.

Other articles about the project:

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60258620