Treatment for paralysis reinforces hope offered by regenerative medicine

21 October 2014        

Close-up of BHF Associate Medical Director Professor Jeremy Pearson.

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, discusses the parallels between today’s news about treating paralysis and our hopes for mending broken hearts.

This morning I woke to the news that a paralysed man could walk again. A medical miracle had been performed thanks to laboratory and clinical research. But when you break down the scientific journey that’s got us to this point, you realise it isn’t a miracle at all but decades of dedication and excellent science. This is the journey our funded researchers are on now as they work towards repairing and regenerating hearts damaged by heart attack.

A University College London (UCL) researcher, Professor Geoffrey Raisman, has been the driving force behind the paralysis breakthrough. Back in 1985 he discovered special cells in the nose that have a unique ability for allowing new nerve cells to grow. Almost three decades later, after developing a technique through studies in rats, we now have a potential treatment to regenerate a severed spinal cord.

Solving the unsolvable

This breakthrough is an excellent example of how persistence pays off in medical research. Laboratory science you’re helping us to fund now could become a patient treatment in the future but the researchers need time and they need continued funding.

Professor Raisman was searching for a solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable – something that our funded researchers can relate to. Right now, once a heart is damaged, like the spinal cord, it cannot be repaired. The heart doesn’t spontaneously repair itself. A damaged heart can’t pump blood around the body as well as it should, which can lead to heart failure. Heart failure can be severely disabling and prevent people carrying out basic tasks like going to the shops or washing without becoming totally exhausted.

Right now a BHF Professor, Paul Riley, is moving us closer to a solving our unsolvable problem. In 2011, while at UCL, Professor Riley showed in mice how heart muscle can be regenerated in the adult heart after damage. Now at Oxford, he and his team are further investigating the outer layer of the heart, where these regenerative heart cells lie. We hope this work will eventually lead to a treatment that could be given to people after a heart attack to trigger the repair of any damage and prevent heart failure.

Funding research to find new treatments

Due to difficulties in securing funding Professor Raisman’s progress was perhaps delayed by many years. With your support we hope to accelerate the progress that Professor Riley and his fellow researchers are making. We have already committed to funding £7.5 million across three Centres of Regenerative Medicine, one led by Professor Riley, that bring top researchers together with a common aim of repairing damaged heart muscle and blood vessels. And now we hope to raise a further £10 million towards a dedicated regenerative medicine facility for Professor Riley and his colleagues at Oxford.

This facility, called the Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine, will bring experts from three separate disciplines under one roof where they can share facilities, ideas and resources – making new treatments a reality much sooner.

Hopefully, someday soon, thanks to your help and the hard work of our funded researchers, I’ll be waking up to the news that we can mend broken hearts. Another medical miracle, which at one time seemed impossible, will have been performed.

Find out more about the proposed Institute at Oxford.

Help fund regenerative research to mend broken hearts.