Stem cell surgery gives paralysed man hope

AFTER breaking his neck in a devastating accident Michael Flounders was left paralyzed from the neck down and never imagined he would walk again.

Lizzie Parry

AFTER breaking his neck in a devastating accident Michael Flounders was left paralyzed from the neck down and never imagined he would walk again.

Now, 20 years later and after travelling to the other side of the world to undergo dangerous pioneering surgery, his dreams of walking may be within his grasp.

The 52-year-old from Fressingfield, received ground breaking stem cell therapy in Ecuador in November 2007 and since the treatment he has started to see major improvements.

“Since the stem cell implant I am making recovery. How long and how far it will go no-one can say because it is so new,” he said. “It could still take a number of years before the full effects of the operation are felt because nerves are very slow in healing.

“It has broadened the horizons of my recovery; it has given me a sense of hope. Everyday things are changing; the feelings in my legs are becoming a lot more powerful.”

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Within three months the campaigner for disability awareness began to see the positive effects of the treatment.

After the accident the hairs on his legs, below his knee, stopped growing and his legs were white, due to bad circulation. For the first time in 20 years hairs have started to grow back and his legs have changed colour as circulation improves.

He has regained strength in his stomach and back muscles, and is now able to contract those muscles so instead of his upper body flopping and folding over he can now control his upper body movements.

The surgery carried out by Dr Luis Geffner at the Luis Vernaza hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador, involved the implanting of adult stem cells from Mr Flounders' bone marrow.

First surgeons had to open his neck, risking the broken vertebrae crumbling, to remove scar tissue in the area where the vertebrae was pushing against his spinal cord, restricting the nerves and causing his paralysis. The surgeon was then able to inject the stem cells directly to the site of the original injury.

The treatment is so new that the first clinical trials were only completed in January 2007 just months before Mr Flounders first contacted Dr Geffner.

The accident happened in October 1988 when Mr Flounders was playing with his three children in the garden.

As he went to do a hand stand his thumb got caught in his pocket and his head hit the ground breaking his neck and paralysing him from the neck down.

Five years later he regained some use of his hands and was able to support himself and move using a frame.

Despite the dangers and the massive gamble that he would lose all the movement he had regained, Mr Flounders said there was no decision to make. He had to go.

“I was gambling everything I had achieved. All the progress I had made because if they had slipped up I could have been paralyzed completely from the neck down again,” he added.

He first heard about the pioneering procedures on a spinal injuries blog online.

“It was really bizarre, as I was reading about it I knew it was what I had to do. The whole thing became a very spiritual experience for me,” he said. “It was really a step of faith to travel to a country 5,500 miles away where the doctors were saying they didn't know what they would find when they opened up my neck, it could just crumble and all collapse, but I knew it was the right thing for me to do.

“You have to evaluate your whole life, the quality of life you have and think can I live with what I have now or do I take a chance to see if I could be a bit better?”

Stem cell therapy

Stem cells are the building blocks of our bodies that have not yet been assigned a specialist task.

Given particular chemical signals they can be transformed into anything from a heart cell to a nerve cell.

Adult stem cells exist in a wide range of tissues including bone marrow, muscle, the brain and the liver and they are already half way down the path to becoming a specific type of cell. As such they have restricted potential and can only give rise to a few types of cells.

The more controversial embryonic stem cell therapy, not yet practiced, would use cells harvested from embryonic tissue. They are more versatile and can be developed into almost any kind of cell type in the body.

The idea behind stem cell treatment for paralysed patients is that the stem cells can grow into nerve cells to replace those permanently damaged, bridging the gap between the severed pieces of the spinal cord.