Jasper the dachshund (pictured above) injured his spine when he was struck by a car. He became one of 34 dogs with spinal injuries who participated in the first double-blind, randomized, controlled trial to demonstrate spinal cord regeneration in dogs. The study, appearing in this week’s issue of Brain, was conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Veterinary School with funding from the UK’s Medical Research Council. They found that olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) from the subjects’ noses could be used to regenerate axons at the site of the spinal injury.
The olfactory system is the only part of mammals which can continue to regenerate during adulthood. The OECs aid in growing new nerve cells in the nasal cavity. In the study, 23 of the paralyzed dogs were injected with their own OECs, while the rest were injected with a placebo. The researchers, owners, and dogs didn’t know which dogs received the OECs. All 34 dogs had a severe spinal cord injury which was at least a year old and rendered them unable to use their back legs or feel pain in the hindquarters. Subjects with real-life injuries older than a year were chosen to resemble the same type of patients a human trial may eventually treat.
Each month, the dogs returned to the lab to attempt to walk on a treadmill while supported by a harness. None of the dogs who didn’t receive OECs showed improvement, while the group injected with their own OECs moved their back legs in co-ordination with their front legs. The new nerve connections, unfortunately, were over a short distance within the spinal cord and didn’t connect to the brain. As study co-author Robin Franklin stated, “We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function. It’s more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies, for example.”
The video below shows Jasper on the treadmill before and after treatment. His owner (May Hay) says, “Before the trial, Jasper was unable to walk at all. When we took him out we used a sling for his back legs so that he could exercise the front ones. It was heartbreaking. But now we can’t stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other dogs we own. It’s utterly magic.”
No, it’s not magic. It’s science.