Before Sky picked up Russell Howard’s Good News show from the BBC, I was a loyal and avid fan. Each week he offered an uplifting take on the top headlines and in today’s briefing I hope to deliver the same thing I got from it: a hearty dose of inspiration.
Yesterday, for the first time ever, it was confirmed that a paralysed man with a severed spinal cord was able to walk again of his own volition.
Research published in renowned medical journal Nature Medicine detailed how 30-year-old Michel Roccati – who was paralysed after a motorcycle accident five years ago, resulting in his spine being fully severed – was able to walk again after an electrical implant was surgically attached to his spine.
How does it work, you might wonder? Well, the implant boosts the signals that nerves in the spinal cord carry from the legs to the brain. When damaged these signals can become too weak to create movement on their own. There’s a helpful graphic here. Post-surgery, the patient taps a tablet device indicating they’d like to step (or kick their legs to swim) and the computer instructs the electrodes to conduct the action via bluetooth.
So far nine people have received the implant and regained the ability to walk, not quite as normal but enough to exercise their muscles and improve their general health. Michel can now walk a kilometre and climb the stairs.
Professor Grégoire Courtine, who led the team that developed the technology at the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, said: “This is not a cure for spinal cord injury. But it is a critical step to improve people’s quality of life. We are going to empower people. We are going to give them the ability to stand, to take some steps. It is not enough, but it is a significant improvement”.
The next step will see the treatment progress to a larger clinical trial of 60-100 patients, overseen by Swiss firm Onward Medical, and scientists will consider how best to miniaturise the computer that activates the pulses so it too can be implanted in patients and controlled with a smartphone.
The use of technology in health treatments is a constant wonder, with this latest development just one of many medical miracles. However, this one feels pivotal given the once impossible things it can make feasible again. Never has “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” felt quite so resonant.