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New hope for spinal cord injury survivors after exciting breakthrough in spinal cord research

16 April 2019

Left - Professor Gregoire Courtine Right - Gert-Jan Oskam

With support from the Wings for Life World Run participants, scientists have given
three patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries a great gift: the ability to walk again

Spinal cord research scientists funded by the Wings for Life World Run have made a breakthrough in their treatment of spinal cord injury, restoring three study participants’ ability to control their muscles after several years of paralysis –and giving hope to millions of people across the globe living with spinal cord injury.

Professors Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch have been working on a clinical study called STIMO (Stimulation Movement Overground), which combines two treatments: precise electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and intensive robot-assisted movement training. It establishes a new therapeutic framework to improve recovery from spinal cord injury.

“We implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord, which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs,” explains neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch, who surgically placed the implants in the patients. “Selected configurations of electrodes activate specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking.”

The patients then have to learn how to coordinate their brains’ intention to walk with the targeted electrical stimulation. “When all the patients could walk using body-weight support within one week,” said Bloch, “I knew immediately that we were on the right path.”

Thanks to the targeted neurotechnology, the three participants could actively train natural overground walking capabilities in the rehabilitation lab for long periods of time, rather than doing passive training, like exoskeleton-assisted stepping.

Just five months after having an electronic stimulator surgically implanted over the dura (the coating that protects the spinal cord), all three patients’ ability to move and control their muscles had improved.

The patients can operate the stimulator with a personalized voice-controlled watch, switching the stimulation on and off to suit their needs – but what’s truly exciting is that all three patients can move their paralyzed muscles even when the stimulator is turned off, too.

What does this mean for people with spinal cord injury?

Study participant Gert-Jan Oskam was told after a traffic accident in 2011 he’d never be able to walk again. “But now I can walk short distances with the help of electrical stimulation and crutches,” says Gert-Jan. “I should be able to have a BBQ standing on my own in the near future.”

Sebastian Tobler had a spinal cord injury so severe that doctors had no walkingrehabilitation program to offer. “Now the electrical stimulation gives me the opportunity to train,” says Sebastian. “It gets my blood flowing, and – more excitingly – gets me out in the forest. It’s good for the mind. It’s good for the body.”

After seven years living with an incomplete spinal cord injury, David Mzee took his first shaky but voluntary steps: “It’s an amazing feeling – let’s see how far we can go with this technology.”

Thanks to Wings for Life World Run participants

The Wings for Life World Run has backed this incredible research team since the beginning, and continues to give hope to the millions of patients globally who live with spinal cord injury.

Sign up for the Wings for Life World Run now. Whether you do a solo App Run, join a local Organized App Run or stay ahead of a real Catcher Car in an Event Location on May 5, 2019, you’ll keep this fantastic momentum going.

About the Wings for Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation

Worldwide, millions of people are dependent on a wheelchair after having sustained a spinal cord injury, most often as the result of a traffic accident or a fall. Wings for Life is a not-forprofit spinal cord research foundation with the single mission to find a cure for spinal cord injury. Since 2004, Wings for Life has funded life-changing research projects and clinical trials around the globe. While a cure is still to be found, steady progress has been made.

One hundred percent of the Wings for Life World Run entry fees and fundraising from this global running event will help work toward Wings for Life’s ultimate goal. Every step taken at the Wings for Life World Run and with the Wings for Life World Run App is a step in the right direction – http://www.wingsforlife.com

About the Wings for Life World Run

On one day each year the Wings for Life World Run is held simultaneously in numerous locations and via the App across the world, everyone starting at the same time, whether day or night, and all with the same goal – to raise money for the Wings for Life Foundation.

Under its unique format, participants run as far as they can until they are passed by a moving finish line, the “Catcher Car,” which chases runners along the course or virtual in the App, gradually getting faster until each participant has been caught. This moving finish line allows participants of any ability to complete the run – the slower ones are passed early while ultraathletes go on for hours. 100% of entry fees and donations goes toward helping to find a cure for spinal cord injury; and in the fifth editions since it was launched in 2014, the World Run has attracted more than 500,000 people from 193 nationalities to participate in more than 66 countries across all seven continents.