Developing an olfactory cell therapy for spinal cord injury

The path to ending paralysis

Every day in Australia, through spinal cord injury, one life is changed forever. There are currently approximately 15,000 recorded cases of spinal cord

injury in Australia. Each year there are over 300 new incidents reported. The impacts of spinal cord injury are usually life-long and devastating.

Research into finding a cure for paralysis has been undertaken across the world for many years, the pathway to a cure for paralysis is in sight.

The potential answer? Taking cells from the olfactory (sense of smell) system and transplanting into the spinal cord injury site.

A world-first Phase I clinical trial led by scientists at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD), Griffith University, in 2002, including 2017 Australian of the Year, Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim demonstrated that the therapy is safe for use in humans. That trial led to a recent human trial by British/Polish researchers demonstrating that restoration of function after severing of the human spinal cord is indeed possible. In this study, a mix of olfactory cells together with a nerve bridge were transplanted into the injured spinal cord.

Within 6-12 months after transplantation, the patient, who had been paralysed for several years prior to the treatment, regained some motor function of his legs, bladder control, and, most importantly, sensation. These exciting proof-of-principle results give hope that

patients may regain function after spinal cord injury. What is now needed is to improve the transplantation therapy to make it more effective.

In partnership with the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation, The Queensland Government (Motor Accident Insurance Commission - MAIC) and the Clem Jones Foundation, the team at Griffith University’s GRIDD and Menzies Health Institute Queensland (MHIQ) is planning to undertake a clinical trial in 2020 to progress this journey and show that this therapy can further regenerate patients’ sensory and motor function.

The method used has the potential to result in the first widely available treatment for spinal cord injury and will establish Griffith University as world-leaders in spinal cord injury treatment.

Australian of the Year, 2017, Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim

Australian of the Year, 2017, Professor Emeritus Alan Mackay-Sim

The impact of spinal cord injury

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Spinal cord injury is currently a life-long burden on both the person impacted and society at large. In Australia around one person sustains a spinal cord injury every day, and many of these individuals are under the age of 24. There are currently 15,000 Australians living with spinal cord injury. Aside from the personal trauma, the cost to our society to care for spinal injured people is $2 billion a year. Without an effective cure for spinal cord injury, the emotional and financial costs to individuals, their families and to our community are life-long.

Spinal cord injury can happen to anyone at any time. It is not just about being in a wheelchair, there is also a lack of control, independence and freedom. The type of disability

which occurs after the spinal cord is injured depends on the severity of injury and the location of the injured segment of the spinal cord. A damaged or severed spinal cord means the region of the body below the level of injury becomes paralysed. In cases of complete paralysis, all functions below the level of injury will be lost.

After a spinal cord injury, the nerve fibres, which send mot  or signals from the brain to the torso and the limbs are impaired and this causes paralysis of the muscles. Destruction of sensory nerve fibres leads to loss of sensations such as touch, pain and the ability to distinguish between hot and cold. Less well-known is that spinal cord injury can also  severely limit bladder and bowel control, sexual performance, blood pressure and  sometimes the ability to breathe unaided.


A therapy in sight

The development of olfactory cell transplantation as a therapy to repair spinal cord injury dates back to the 1990s and has been progressively developed by teams around the world. Griffith University’s GRIDD has taken a lead role to date, with the world’s first Phase I clinical safety trial using olfactory cells to repair the spinal cord conducted in 2002. Studies have since been undertaken on rats and dogs. The first human efficacy study in 2014 showed that the therapy was effective for partially repairing the human spinal cord. Now it’s time to make this therapy more effective, available and affordable.