Back On His Feet

Friday, May 20, 2011 - 3:05pm

Paraplegic stands and takes steps thanks to new spinal implant.

A paraplegic man is now standing on his own and making voluntary movements with his legs thanks to research that's taking place at the University of Louisville and the Frazier Rehab Institute.

Scientists, surgeons and therapists are using a combination therapy to stimulate the spine.

It's a first and it's leading to some amazing results.

Right now the research includes just one patient, but it's giving hope to the millions suffering with paralysis around the world.

On the afternoon of May 19, the news came at a news conference in New York City.

With all the key doctors present, the study patient, Rob Summers, talked about his renewed abilities.

"To everyone's disbelief, I was able to stand independently the third day after we turned it on," said Summers.

What was turned on is an epidural stimulator.

Summers, a promising baseball player, was paralyzed from his mid-chest down in a 2006 hit and run.

He scouted out the most promising rehab available and found it at Frazier Rehab.

Dr. Susan Harkema came to Frazier in 2005 and brought with her the promising spinal cord therapy known as Locomoter Training.

The theory is it can re-teach the spinal cord to walk using specific, repetitive movements.

While it has led to many success stories, Summers did not see any results after 170 different sessions.

"However, there's another component of it," says Harkema. "This is where the epidural stimulation comes in."

In December 2009, Dr. Jonathon Hodes implanted the stimulator over Summers spinal cord with the idea and the hope says Harkema, "In order to get the spinal cord to a physiological state where it can function. In order to stand or step, we needed to stimulate those neurons."

It's something the brain typically does, but in paraplegics with complete motor loss, like Summers, it can no longer do so.

But with the epidural stimulation, combined with the Locomoter Training, Summers was standing in a matter of days.

Eventually, Summers was standing for an hour at a time.

After seven months of therapy, Summers said even more abilities emerged.

"Being able to move my toes, ankles, knees on command, it was absolutely incredible," said Summers. "There are not enough words to describe how I felt. At one point, it was just a dream and now it's reality and now I'm thinking literally, the next step."

The FDA has approved the implant of four more patients, but researchers' stress this is not a cure.

"We now know there's a whole new avenue we can explore and we have just really scratched the surface of this potential," said Harkema.

Summers also reports improved bladder control, respiratory and heart function.

The University of Louisville and the Frazier Rehab Institute are partnering with researchers at UCLA and the California Institute of Technology in the project.

The research findings were published in the May 19 edition of the renowned British medical journal, The Lancet.

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