A group of scientists associated with GTX Medical, a Swiss medical device firm, published new evidence yesterday that using electricity to stimulate the spinal cord can help paralyzed people regain some walking ability.
The new results, published yesterday in Nature and its sister journal Nature Neuroscience, show that using patterns of electrical stimulation allowed three men to regain the ability to walk with training. Unlike previous studies published in Nature Medicine and The New England Journal of Medicine, which used continuous electrical signals, not pulses, two of the men maintained the ability to walk even when the stimulation device was turned off.
The patients still need walkers in order to maintain their balance, and it takes months of sustained training for them to recover function. But the results point the way to the possibility that spinal cord injuries will become treatable in the foreseeable future.
“We feel more and more comfortable that this is a treatment for spinal cord injury,” says Gregoire Courtine, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the chief medical officer of GTX.
In a commentary in Nature Neuroscience, University of Washington biophysicist Chet Moritz largely agreed, calling the three recent studies “a breakthrough in the treatment of paralysis” and exhorting his readers to “[i]magine a time when technology and rehabilitation have advanced to the point where people with spinal cord injury can rise from their wheelchairs and begin to walk again.”
Courtine’s group at EPFL treated patients who had somewhat more retained sensation that the patients treated by U.S. groups last month. He credits much of the difference to the way his group configured the pacemaker-like devices that are being used to stimulate the nerves, and in technology that tells exactly when and where to stimulate. Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University Hospital, Courtine’s co-author and a co-founder of GTX, says that the strategy going forward could be to start in more recently injured patients. “We have to start earlier,” she says.
Moving forward will require clinical trials that test the new technologies more rigorously. GTX Medical raised $40.3 million from investors including btov Partners, Gimv, and INKEF Capital in August 2016, according to Pitchbook. Courtine says that the company may want to raise more money in order to more rapidly start studies in the United States.