In a development with possible significance for patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, a biotechnology company said Thursday that it has used nose cells from pigs to regenerate and restore function to severed spinal cords in rats and primates.
Researchers from Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc., of New Haven, Conn., and the Yale University School of Medicine jointly released their data at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Los Angeles.
Stephen P. Squinto, Alexion's senior vice president and chief technology officer, said the company has had success on 25 to 50 rats whose spinal cords were surgically severed.
The transplanted pig cells formed a sheath around damaged nerves, and normal nerve signals were restored. The sheath helps conduct electrical impulses much like insulation enhances an electrical wire.
Preliminary results of studies on two primates have also been promising, Squinto said, adding that the company might start human clinical trials in the second half of next year if a new series of studies on monkeys is successful.
Each year, scientists estimate, 8,000 to 12,000 people suffer crippling injuries to their spinal cords, mostly in car wrecks or sporting accidents. One such accident, actor Christopher Reeve's 1995 fall from a show horse, helped reinvigorate research into finding a cure, which had long been viewed as impossible.
Other companies and research organizations have joined the race to find a reliable cure. Most projects are still in the test-tube or rodent-study stage, according to scientific publications.
Diacrin Inc., a biotech company in Charlestown, Mass., is transplanting fetal pig cells into rats and could begin human studies within a year.
Other companies, including Acorda Therapeutics in Hawthorne, N.Y., have succeeded in getting injured rats to walk again by injecting or implanting drugs at the site of damage.
At the Miami, Fla., Project to Cure Paralysis, scientists have been taking support tissues from peripheral nerves and transplanting them to injured spines in the hope of helping nerves recover and reconnect. By taking cells from the patient's own body, scientists figure, they can avoid the rejection that can come with transplants of foreign tissues.
Thomas H. Countee Jr., a long-time tetraplegic (a term now preferable to quadriplegic, Countee said) who is executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Assn. in Silver Spring, Md., said the findings represent "another advance in the journey of medical research toward an eventual discovery" of treatment. He had not seen the Alexion-Yale study but called it "very exciting" that Alexion might launch human clinical trials next year.
Alexion shares rose $2 to close at $13 Thursday in trading on Nasdaq.