Treatment pays off for paralyzed pooch

Rebecca Sage - News Reporter 19 October 2009

A trial therapy for canine spinal cord injury undertaken at the Cambridge Veterinary School may allow paralysed dogs to walk again. The 3-year project, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), is currently being undertaken by Professor Nick Jeffery, Professor Robin Franklin, Dr Nicolas Granger and Helen Blamires.

Treatment involves the harvesting of olfactory ensheathing cells, located inside the back of the nose, which are then cultivated and injected back into the spine. Such cells are capable of supporting the growth of new nerve fibres and so aid the repair of the spinal cord. After the procedure, the dogs are given physiotherapy and their movements on a treadmill are monitored to analyse the extent of leg movement.

Funding by the MRC illustrates the potential use of the treatment for humans with spinal cord injuries. Professor Jeffery told The Cambridge Student (TCS), “we do realise the treatment has implications for human medicine”, but emphasised that his immediate concern during the trial was the treatment of the dogs concerned. The use of the treatment to help people depends upon the results at the end of the trial in a few years’ time and Professor Jeffery was careful to point out the possibility that there may be no beneficial effect.

The treatment of Henry, a 6 year-old miniature dachshund who is taking part in the trial, has been portrayed in the national media as a “success”, with The Daily Telegraph reporting “paralysed dog cured by stem cell treatment”. Speaking recently to the paper, Henry’s owner Sarah Beech, 34, said that she did not think Henry would ever walk again, and had been advised to put him to sleep.

However, the facts behind the story serve to re-emphasise scientists’ criticisms that the media has a poor capacity for reporting scientific discoveries, with a tendency to attribute medical intervention to either miracle or cure. Henry suffered from paralysis in his back legs and, a month into the trial, has been able to take a few steps. Nonetheless, Professor Jeffery told TCS that he is reluctant, at this stage, to attribute the change to the trial intervention.

“Dogs that have had bad spinal cord injuries can develop stepping movements even though the spinal cord is totally severed”, he said. “The fact that a dog has regained stepping movements does not necessarily mean that the cells are responsible for that change”.

The trial is carried out ‘blind’, meaning one of two treatments is randomly allocated to the recipient, and neither the researcher nor the owners are aware of which treatment the dog is receiving. Since the trial began in January, only four treatments have been completed, meaning that the effectiveness of the treatments is currently not established.

Rebecca Sage – News Reporter