During a college football game in October 1985, Marc Buoniconti fractured his spine between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae. Since then, he’s lived his life in a wheelchair, unable to move any muscle below his shoulders, writes Time magazine Healthland blogger Jeffrey Kluger.
A life of paralysis was not part of Buoniconti’s plans, so he trained new muscles, learned to breathe on his own and ultimately weaned himself from his respirator. Though this was an impressive accomplishment, Buoniconti sought to achieve more.
Alongside the University of Miami, a group of local surgeons and his father, Nick, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2001, Buoniconti co-founded the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He has a passion for finding a cure to paralysis, seeking a life without his wheelchair and helping the other 300,000 Americans with similar spinal cord injuries. In the meantime, he’s done his best to stay in shape.
“When the cure comes, I plan to be ready,” he told Kluger. “Always in the back of my mind, I’m an athlete and have to prepare for the future.”
Tuesday morning, Buoniconti got closer to his goal when Miami Project doctors held a press conference to announce a new opportunity for spinal cord injury research.
According to Kluger’s story, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had just granted them a green light to begin Phase 1 human trials for a new surgical technique in which nerve cells from the leg would be transplanted to the spine of newly paralyzed patients in the hope that they would grow — restoring at least some function and sensation.”
Miami Project reacts to FDA nod
After years of studying mice, rats, pigs and primates, Miami Project researchers look forward to working with human cells to find a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis.
“We believe today’s announcement is just as important to our field as man’s first step on the moon was to the space program,” neurosurgeon and project co-founder Barth Green told conference attendees. “When we started the Miami Project, the short-term goal was to improve the quality of life of people living with paralysis, but the long-term goal remains re-establishing function and finding a cure.”
More about spinal-cord injuries
Spinal-cord injuries are debilitating, permanent and happen in an instant. Unlike nerves in the arms and legs that can redevelop after a serious injury, the central nervous system has no regenerative ability.
Kluger reports, “As researchers learned, there are a lot of things that drive peripheral regrowth, but perhaps the most important are known as Schwann cells, which are not nerve cells themselves but a kind of attendant, helping neurons regrow myelin — the fatty insulation that covers nerve strands — and otherwise stay healthy and functioning.”
The FDA approved study
Eight volunteers suffering from a recent thoracic spinal injury – damage to the spine farther from the neck, leading to paraplegia – will participate in the study. Schwann cells will be gathered from the patients’ legs and will be maintained in a petri dish for 26 to 40 days, until they are transplanted into the patients’ spines.
The volunteers will be made aware of all risks and possible advantages prior to beginning the study. Once it launches, their improvement will be monitored for at least a year.
Until then, Buoniconti will continue to work out.