Anne-Marie Howarth was riding her motorcycle in the Blue Mountains when she went too fast on a bend, crashed into a barrier and “squashed” her spine, leaving her paralysed from the lower chest down.
In a groundbreaking collaboration between the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Reggie Edgerton, SpinalCure Australia and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, scientists will attempt to treat paralysed Australians with neurostimulation.
In the 12 years since, Ms Howarth, 43, never thought she would see a medical breakthrough that reversed spinal cord injuries in her lifetime, let alone in five years.
But that’s now the reality. A trial will begin in Sydney next year where scientists will use electrical currents to jump-start the broken spinal cords of quadriplegics.
Professor Bryce Vissel, from the Centre for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at UTS, will start a trial that aims to help paralysed people move again. Photo: Janie Barrett
“Everybody keeps saying in 10 years’ time things will be different and it just goes on and on,” said Ms Howarth, who uses a wheelchair “99.9 per cent” of the time.
“But this is the first time we can actually think, yes, this treatment could actually deliver improvements to people’s lives in five years’ time.”
In July, a team at University of Technology, Sydney, will attempt to replicate and build on the work of Professor Reggie Edgerton from the University of California, Los Angeles, who has helped 20 paralysed people move their limbs again – defying medical dogma.
Still in its infancy, neuromodulation involves using electrical currents to stimulate the spinal cord below the point of injury, enabling it to “hear” and act upon messages from the brain.
Anne-Marie Howarth says the neuromodulation trial gives her hope that one day she’ll be able to walk again. Photo: Daniel Munoz
Professor Edgerton’s work is groundbreaking, as it could shatter the long-held medical belief that the spinal cord is simply a messenger between the brain and the limbs, and once severed, cannot be repaired.
About 15,000 Australians live with a spinal cord injury. More than 300 new cases are recorded each year, with a third caused by a vehicle-related accident.
Professor Bryce Vissel, director of the newly established Centre for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at UTS, said the human trial will be the first outside the US and run in a multi-disciplinary environment involving the best minds in fields as varied as engineering, IT and even economics.
Professor Edgerton has accepted a part-time position and will arrive in January.
As a first step, pending ethics approval, the team will aim to restore hand function in participants with quadriplegia.
“Reggie has redefined what a spinal cord injury is because up till now, they thought a ‘complete’ injury was characterised by a complete loss of sense and function below the injury,” he said.
“But there might be small numbers of nerve fibres, functional, still running through the injury site, some pathway,” he continued.
“Reggie’s technology elevates the ability of the lower part of the spinal cord to hear the small signals that are coming through the injury site, so it may not be a ‘complete’ injury.”
The latest spinal cord stimulation study shows participants require less and less stimulation to achieve the same movements, suggesting the therapy sets a “cascade of repair events” to bring about recovery.
In addition, yet-to-be-published research by Dr Edgerton shows electrical stimulation can also be used to manage high blood pressure, which is an important finding because high blood pressure caused by dysreflexia is a leading cause of death among paralysed people.
Another exciting benefit, says Ms Howarth, is that neuromodulation has been shown to improve bladder and bowel function.
“It’s not just the ability to move and walk, but to get some control back over internal organs like the bladder and bowel, and we’ve been seeing these huge flow-on effects,” she said.
Ms Howarth, who created Paralogic, which sells affordable catheters, said as an “incomplete sever” who can wriggle a toe, the gains could be bigger for her.
“They’ve shown huge gains for complete injuries, so for me, as an incomplete sever, I’m wondering whether the outcomes could be better.”
Professor Vissel said the benefits of neuromodulation could extend to hundreds of thousands of Australians with all sorts of mobility conditions.
“We want to develop the engineering of the device, roll it out across Australia, and help people with stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
To make this happen, UTS has partnered with SpinalCure Australia and Spinal Cord Injuries Australia so that the treatment package, when ready, can be rolled out in rehabilitation centres across the country.
The “Project Edge” collaboration is seeking to raise $15 million, and has recently received $3 million from the Neilson Foundation.
“The faster we raise the money, the quicker we can reach more people around the country and continue the research to build on Reggie’s outstanding results,” said Duncan Wallace, chief executive of SpinalCure Australia.