Spinal cord injuries remain one of the most challenging medical problems to treat; but ground-breaking surgery has been carried out in China that gives hope that paralysed people may one day walk again.
The regenerative stem cell treatment follows more than 10 years of research by Chinese scientists.
After four hours of surgery in China's northern city of Tianjin, a man paralyzed in his lower body after he was involved in a traffic accident two months ago has been implanted with stem cells into his spinal column, using regenerative nerve material developed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
It's the first time regenerative spinal cord surgery has been attempted anywhere in the world.
"A scar was formed in the first surgery to occupy the entire damaged part of the spine. We then cut it out, about 2.8 cm in size, and replaced it with a tube containing stem cells," said Tang Fengwu of the China Police Neurological Hospital.
Major spinal injuries nearly always lead to paralysis below the level of the injury. Doctors and scientists around the world have for years been trying to find new ways to treat the problem.
The Institute of Genetics and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences began experiments on animals 10 years ago.
They started with mice, and then progressed to bigger animals, like dogs. The experiments were successful, giving scientists more confidence to attempt the procedure on humans.
"Spinal nerves are like a cable. So we've designed collagenous fibres, like a bridge or a rail, which nerves can crawl along as they grow. Stem cells can produce regenerative tissue elements, so they improve the regeneration capacity of the wounded area," said Dai Jianwu, research fellow at Inst. of Genetics & Dev't, CAS.
Doctors say the four-hour surgery went smoothly on Friday. Now, the patient's family can only wait and hope.
"We have a large family to raise. I hope he can feel his legs again as soon as possible. I'll be very happy if he can stand up one day, even if he can only walk one tenth the distance we do," said a patient's wife.
Another six spinal cord injury patients are now set to undergo the surgery.