But now the 40-year-old Bulgarian man is walking again with the support of a walker, thanks to a novel treatment carried out by surgeons in Poland in collaboration with scientists in London.
Dr. Pawel Tabakow, consultant neurosurgeon at Wroclaw University Hospital, who led the Polish research team, said, "It's amazing to see how regeneration of the spinal cord, something that was thought impossible for many years, is becoming a reality."
The procedure, the first of its kind, used olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) from Fidyka’s olfactory bulb in the nasal cavity. The special cells act as pathway cells that allow nerve fibers in the olfactory system to be constantly renewed, reports the BBC. The complicated neural circuitry that allows for our sense of smell is the only part of the nervous system that regenerates throughout adult life.
The treatment involved two operations. In the first, one of Fidyka’s olfactory bulbs was removed and cells were grown in culture. Several weeks later, the team implanted the OECs into the spinal cord. All that was left connecting the cord was a small strip of scar tissue, plus the addition of four strips of nerve tissue taken from his ankle and placed alongside the spinal cord. The doctors say that the OECs enabled the fibers above and below the injury to reconnect, using the nerve grafts to bridge the gap in the cord.
Three months after the treatment, and having continued with physiotherapy, Fidyka noticed he had started gaining muscle on his left thigh. Six months after the surgery, he was able to take a few steps supporting himself with parallel bars, leg braces and the help of a physiotherapist. Now it's two years later, and he can walk outside of the rehab center using only a walker. Some bladder and bowel sensation, plus sexual function, have returned as well.
Professor Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London's Institute of Neurology and leader of the UK research team, said that the success was "more impressive than man walking on the moon."
Fidyka says that walking again is an incredible feeling.
"When you can't feel almost half your body, you are helpless,” he said. “But when it starts coming back, it's like you were born again."
The research was published in the journal Cell Transplantation.
See Fidyka and more about the treatment in the BBC clip below.
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