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For Investigators Only


FAQ #2: When the Cure will be Available for Spinal Cord Injury

Wise Young, Ph.D., M.D.


When will a cure for spinal cord injury be available?  This is the second most frequently asked question, usually asked right after the first most frequently asked question, “Will there be a cure for spinal cord injury?” While I don’t have a crystal ball for the future, some therapies are already beginning to restore function in people with spinal cord injury with spinal cord injury, several regenerative therapies have begun clinical trials, and the first combination therapies will soon go into clinical trial.  If we work hard, the resources are available, and we are lucky, we should expect the first restorative therapies within 5 years and perhaps the first curative combination therapies within a decade.

First generation therapies for spinal cord injury are already restoring some function to some people with spinal cord injury.  Methylprednisolone (MP) was the first therapy to show any beneficial effects when given after spinal cord injury.  MP improves motor and sensory recovery by about 20% compared to control.  A second therapy is Fampridine (4-aminopyridine), which is restoring function to some people with demyelination. The third therapy is locomotor training for people with “incomplete” spinal cord injuries.

Second generation therapies are now or will soon be in clinical trial.  These include cell transplants (olfactory ensheathing glia, Schwann cells, bone marrow stem cells, neural stem cells, oligodendroglial progenitor cells, embryonic stem cells), nogo and nogo receptor blockers, chondroitinase, growth factors, lithium, and many others. These therapies are likely to stimulate modest regeneration in the spinal cord and restore more function to more people.

Third generation therapies will be combination therapies that will bring substantially more function to most people, fulfilling the definition of what many people may call “cures” for spinal cord injury.  The optimal combination will probably differ depending on the individual.  The combination therapies should include not only therapies that regenerate spinal axons but also remyelination and neuronal replacement, including motoneurons.

What can we learn form past experience?  Below, I will describe eight examples of therapies for spinal cord injury, i.e. methyprednisolone, locomotor training, fampridine, cethrin, nogo antibody, and human embryonic stem cells, bone marrow stem cells, and combination therapy with cord blood mononuclear cells and lithium.  I chose these treatments because each have undergone or are going through clinical trial.  I will describe the development of each of the therapies to date, the lessons from this experience, and the probability of the first restorative therapies and combination therapies.

Methylprednisolone (MP)

MP was the first therapy shown to be effective for acute spinal cord injury.  In the 1970’s, neurosurgeons were using high doses of the anti-inflammatory glucocorticoid drug methylprednisolone (MP) to treat arachnoiditis [1] and head injury [2].  Some clinicians wondered if MP would be effective for acute spinal cord injury [3, 4].  In 1979, ten spinal cord injury centers joined to do the first double blind randomized clinical trial of high-dose and low-dose MP for acute spinal cord injury.

The first National Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study (NASCIS 1) randomized 300 patients to 1000 mg/day or 100 mg/day of intravenous MP for 10 days starting within 24 hours after injury. The trial found no significant difference between the two doses of MP [5].  However, in 1982, animal studies showed that much higher doses (30 mg/kg) were required to inhibit lipid peroxidation [6] and that very early treatment was necessary for to reduce extracellular calcium entry into cells and to prevent post-traumatic ischemia [7].  The opiate receptor blocker naloxone was beneficial in animal models [8, 9] and a phase 2 trial [10].

The second National Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study (NASCIS 2) therefore randomized 487 patients to placebo, high-dose MP (30 mg/kg bolus followed by 5.4 mg/kg/hour over 24 hours), and naloxone (5.4 mg/kg + 3.0 mg/kg/hour over 24 hours).  Starting in 1985, the trial proposed to segregate patients by the median treatment time, which was 8 hours, assess the effects of treatment timing.  NASCIS 2 [11] showed that high-dose MP improved motor and sensory recovery compared to placebo when treatment started within 8 hours but not when started later than 8 hours [12].  Naloxone had intermediate effects between MP and placebo.  MP was not associated with significant morbidity or mortality. From 1991-1993, <50% of people with acute spinal cord injury in Colorado received MP [13] and physicians tended to give the drug to more severely injured patients.

The third National Acute Spinal Cord Injury Study (NASCIS 3) randomized 499 patients with acute spinal cord injury and treated all within 8 hours with a 30 mg/kg MP bolus, followed by 5.4 mg/kg/hour for 24 hours (MP24), MP given for 48 hours (MP48), or tirilazad mesylate (TM) 2.5 mg bolus given every 6 hours for 48 hours (TM48).  The median treatment time was 3 hours.  All three treatment groups had similar outcomes when started within 3 hours but MP48 was better than either MP24 or TM48 when given more than 3 hours after injury [14, 15].  The treatments were not associated with significant mortality or morbidity except for an increase in severe pneumonia after MP48.

The NASCIS group recommended MP24 when it could be started within 3 hours, MP48 between 3-8 hours, and no MP if it could not be started within 8 hours after injury. Several randomized trials [16-19] have confirmed beneficial effects and safety of MP use in human acute spinal cord injury and related conditions [20, 21].  However, one small randomized trial [22] and several retrospective studies [23-27] suggested MP may be ineffective. One study suggested that MP Retrospective studies are biased because clinicians tend to give MP to more severely injured patients.  Nevertheless, criticisms of NASCIS mounted [28-36].  Today, MP is an option and not a standard treatment of acute spinal cord injury in the United States.

Locomotor Training

Most doctors believe that recovery of walking is unlikely after spinal cord injury and thus few encourage their patients to walk after injury.  In 1992, Wernig & Muller [37] reported that intensive treadmill training restored unassisted walking to 8 patients, starting at 5-20 months after spinal cord injury.  By 1995, Wernig et al. [38] had studied 89 patients (44 chronic, 45 acute) with spinal cord injury.  Of 44 chronic patients trained for 3-20 weeks, 33 were initially wheelchair-bound and could not stand or walk.  After training, 25 (76%) of the 33 wheelchair-bound patients achieved unassisted walking.  Of 11 patients who were walking before training, all had better speed and endurance.  In a 1998 followup [39], at 6-72 months after training, 31 of 35 chronic patients who recovered unassisted walking maintained, three improved, and one stopped walking.  Of 41 initially acute spinal cord injuries, 15 improved and one stopped walking.

In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) commissioned a multicenter study to compare weight-supported treadmill and overground walking training in spinal cord injury.  The Spinal Cord Injury Locomotor Trial or SCILT [40] showed that <10% of patients with ASIA B, 92% of those with ASIA C, and 100% of ASIA D recovered walking at >0.8 meter/second and over 260 meters in 6 minutes.  An ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) B classification refers to an injury that preserves only sensation below the injury site, including anal sensation.  ASIA C indicate injuries that preserve anal sensation or sphincter function and motor function below the injury site but less than half of ten key muscles have strength grades exceeding 3 of 5 (0=paralyzed, 1=slight, 2=definite, 3=anti-gravity, 4=against resistance, 5=normal).  ASIA D indicates injuries with 5 or more key muscles with strength grades of 3 or more.  SCILT indicated no difference between training with weight-supported treadmill and overground walking.

Although intensive training can restore locomotion in animals after even severe spinal cord injuries [41-45], the finding that >90% of people with incomplete spinal cord injury can recover unassisted walking even without treadmill training nonetheless took many clinicians by surprise.  Despite initial resistance, this finding is transforming rehabilitation of spinal cord injury.  Motor incomplete patients can walk.  Many investigators are now examining the effects of treadmill training patients with ASIA A (complete) or B (sensory incomplete).  Others are assessing other training approaches, in combination with functional electrical stimulation [46], serotonin receptor agonists [47], and other methods of increasing motor control [48].

In summary, early studies in the 1990’s reported that weight-supported treadmill training could restore unassisted locomotion to people with chronic spinal cord injury.  In 1998, the NIH funded SCILT to study weight-supported treadmill training of patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries.  The study surprisingly showed that >90% of motor incomplete patients recovered unassisted locomotion, whether they were trained by treadmill or overground walking, suggesting that most people who have preserved motor function after injury can recover locomotion if they worked on it.  Many investigators are examining various adjuncts to locomotor training.

Fampridine (4-AP)

Trauma, ischemia, and inflammation demyelinate the spinal cord. 4-aminopyridine (4-AP or fampridine) blocks potassium channels on demyelinated axons, improves conduction, and increases neurotransmitter release [49].  In 1981, Bostock, et al. [50] reported that 4-AP improves conduction in demyelinated axons and Zangger, et al. [51] showed that it also facilitates L-DOPA induced spinal locomotor rhythms in spinal-injured animals.  In 1986, Eliasson, et al. [52] showed that 4-AP restores conduction in heat-injured nerve and spinal roots in animals.  In 1987, Bowe, et al. [53] confirmed that 4-AP improves conduction in demyelinated axons and Blight & Gruner [54] found that 4-AP improved vestibulospinal free fall responses in spinal-injured cats.  In 1989, Blight et al. studied the effects of 4-AP in dogs [55] and proposed clinical trials of 4-AP in spinal cord injury.

In 1993, Hansebout, et al. [56] did the a double-blind, crossover trial of 4-AP in eight patients, finding the drug improved motor and sensory function.  Hayes, et al. [57] confirmed the 4-AP effects on function [58] and motor evoked potentials [59] in patients with spinal cord injury.  In 1997, Segal & Brunnemann [60] found that 4-AP improves pulmonary function in quadriplegic humans with chronic spinal cord injury [60].  In 1997, Acorda Therapeutics licensed the use patent for 4-AP treatment of spinal cord injury. In 1998, Potter, et al. [61] did a randomized crossover trial of a sustained release 4-AP (Fampridine SR) made by Elan.  In 1999, Acorda partnered with Elan to develop Fampridine SR, including preclinical studies [62, 63], studies to assess pharmacokinetics of intravenous [64], intrathecal [65], oral [66] 4AP in humans and animals [67].

In 2001, van der Bruggen, et al. [68] found that 4-AP (0.5 mg/kg) did not improve neurological function of 20 patients with chronic incomplete spinal cord injury.  However, 4-AP improved motor evoked potentials patients with chronic spinal cord injury [69] and Grijalva, et al. [70] randomized 27 patients to 4-AP or placebo, and found that 30 mg/day 4AP for 12 weeks improved neurological function in 69% compared to 46% on placebo. In 2004, Deforge, et al. [71] found no difference between 4-AP (40 mg/day) or placebo in 15 people who were walking after spinal cord injury.

From 2005 to 2007, after a phase 2 [72], more pharmacokinetics [73, 74] and safety trials [75], Acorda did two large randomized placebo-controlled phase 3 trials involving over 800 patients with chronic spinal cord injury to assess Fampridine SR effects on spasticity.  Both trials [not yet published] showed no significant difference between Fampridine SR and placebo.  However, Acorda also did two phase 3 clinical trials that showed that Fampridine SR significantly improves walking performance in multiple sclerosis (MS).

In summary, over a decade of clinical trials yielded promising and conflicting results concerning 4-AP effects on chronic spinal cord injury.  The trials surprisingly revealed that people with spinal cord injury are susceptible to placebo.  Over 40% of patients responded to placebo and perhaps half of the patients responded to 4-AP.  Until better outcome measures can be found, it may be better to choose a condition that is more responsive to 4-AP and go back later to demonstrate efficacy for spinal cord injury.

Nogo-A Antibody

In 1990, Schwab, et al. stunned the world with his study showing that IN-1, an antibody against an as-yet-unidentified myelin component [76], stimulates regeneration of rat corticospinal tract [77].  The first demonstration of a treatment that regenerates the spinal cord, the work convinced many neuroscientists that Aguayo and David [78-80] were right in their proposal that there is something about central myelin that stops axonal growth.  Unfortunately, the IN-1 antibody was promiscuous and bound to many proteins.  It took ten years before Schwab and his colleagues were able to isolate and clone the gene for the protein, now named Nogo [81-86].  With the purified protein finally available, Novartis licensed the patent for Nogo antibody treatment of spinal cord injury and embarked on an intensive program to develop the first regenerative therapy for spinal cord injury.

Many investigators tried different approaches to using the discovery of myelin-based growth inhibitory proteins to regenerate the spinal cord injury.  For example, Huang, et al. [87] reported that vaccinating mice with spinal cord may have induced antibodies that stimulated spinal cord regeneration, an approach that was later validated when the nogo protein itself was available to determine whether the vaccination induced the antibodies against nogo [88, 89].  If vaccination will induce antibodies that can stimulate spinal cord regeneration, this would be a very powerful approach indeed.

Novartis developed specific nogo-A antibodies that improve behavioral outcome and corticospinal plasticity in rats after experimental stroke [90], stimulated corticospinal regeneration in marmosets [91], increased plasticity in many different preparations [92-94].  After demonstrating that the antibodies penetrated into the spinal cord when infused intrathecally [95] and showing that the anti-Nogo-A antibody stimulated sprouting of corticospinal axons in macaque monkeys [96] and the treatment restores serotonin projections in rats after spinal cord injury [97], the Nogo-A antibody was taken to clinical trial in patients with chronic spinal cord injury.

The Novartis phase 1 trial of Nogo-A-antibody (ATI355) was recently completed.  The phase 1 trial (ClinicalTrials.gov identifier NCT00406016) was an open-label multicenter study to assess feasibility, safety, and tolerability of continuous infusing five doses of ATI355 intrathecally into patients starting 4-14 days after injury.  Paraplegic and ASIA A tetraplegic patients were included.  Tetraplegic patients who require artificial respiration could receive treatment as late as 60 days after injury, as soon as they were weaned off the respirator.  Patient with complete anatomical transection or obstruction of the spinal canal, multiple spinal cord lesions, cauda equina injury, brachial or lumbar plexus injury, significant head injury and systemic disease were excluded.  A phase 2 trial has started, indicating that the phase 1 trial has shown safety and feasibility.

In summary, the development of the Nogo antibody has taken nearly 2 decades since the initial discovery that that something in myelin inhibits spinal axonal regeneration.  The treatment has been validated in many laboratory studies and completed phase 1, indicating feasibility and safety.  Upcoming phase 2 trials will optimize the therapy and outcome measures, to be followed by pivotal phase 3 studies to show efficacy.


In 2001, Strittmatter et al. [98-107] described the receptor for Nogo.  The receptor, like many others that stop axonal growth and cellular migration, inhibits axonal growth by activating the intracellular messenger rho with rho kinase [108].  The Strittmatter laboratory identified a 66-amino acid fragment of Nogo that blocks the Nogo receptor [109-112] and other Nogo receptor blockers [113-124].  They even showed that MP and Nogo-66 have a synergistic effect on regeneration [125].  Working with Biogen, they subsequently found that the soluble Nogo receptor protein itself tightly bind molecules that inhibit axonal growth [123] and improves recovery after spinal cord contusion [126].

In the meantime, after studies of rho activation patterns in the spinal cord [127], Lisa McKerracher proposed [128] a new approach to target rho to stimulate repair and regeneration after spinal cord injury.  She used the bacterial toxin C3 to inhibit rho, modifying it so that it entered cells.  She formed the company Bioaxone to develop the drug.  The resulting cell-permeable recombinant protein BA-210 prevented secondary damage and promoted function recovery in spinal cord injury [129].  BA-210 or Cethrin subsequently went to phase 1 clinical trial [130, 131].  Bioaxone was recently bought be Alseres Pharmaceuticals (formerly Boston Life Sciences).

The Cethrin trial (ClinicalTrials.gov identifier NCT00500812) was a Phase I/IIa dose-ranging study to evaluate the safety, tolerability, and pharmacokinetics of BA-210 and the neurological status of patients following administration of a single extradural application of Cethrin during surgery for acute thoracic and cervical Spinal Cord Injury.  All the patients were ASIA A (complete).  Carried out from February 2005 to October 2008, the final data collection of the trial will be in June 2009.   The trial compared 0.3, 1, 6, and 9 mg of BA-210 applied to the dura surface of the injured spinal cord, during surgery that exposed the spinal cord for decompression.

Presentations of the Cethrin phase 1 trial results suggest possible beneficial effects of Cethrin in recovery after spinal cord injury [132].  Of 37 patients entered into the trial, they found no serious adverse side effects.  All the patients were ASIA A on admission.  The six-month patient data indicated that 28% of the patients (10 of 36) improved by one or more ASIA grades as compared to reported literature results of 6.7% [133].  Five of the patients improved to ASIA C and two improved to ASIA D.  One patient died form acute respiratory distress syndrome.

A phase 2 trial will start soon to evaluate the safety and efficacy of Cethrin in adult subjects with acute cervical spinal cord injury [134].   The trial is a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study that will use mean ASIA motor score change as the primary outcome measure.  Six experimental groups will be compared:  placebo, 1 mg, 3 mg, 6 mg, 12 mg, and 18 mg Cethrin.  All the treatments will be applied epidurally during surgery exposing the spinal cord for decompressive or other purposes during the first several weeks after spinal cord injury.

Olfactory Ensheathing Glia (OEG)

The olfactory nerve is the only part in the central nervous system that continuously regenerates in adult mammals.  Its regenerative ability has been attributed to olfactory ensheathing glial (OEG) cells that are born in the nasal mucosa and migrate to the olfactory bulb.  Doucette [135] suggested that OEG cells would facilitate regeneration in other parts of the central nervous system, including the spinal cord.  In 1996, Smale, et al. [136] used OEG cells to repair transected fornix in the rat.  In 1997, Li, et al. [137] used OEG cells to repair adult rat corticospinal tract.  In 1998, Ramon-Cueto, et al. [138] reported that OEG transplants promoted regeneration in transected rat spinal cords.

In 2000, Barnett, et al. [139, 140] reported that human OEG cells can remyelinate axons.  Imaizumi, et al. [141, 142] used pig OEG cells to promote regeneration and remyelination in the spinal cord.  Ramon-Cueto, et al. [143, 144] reported functional regeneration in rats after spinal cord transection.  Many investigators enthused about the promise of OEG cells to bridge the gap in spinal cord injury [145-151].  One company (Alexion) grew OEG from genetically modified pigs as a substitute for human cells.

In 2001, Lu, et al. [152] reported that transplantation of nasal olfactory tissue promotes partial recovery in paraplegic adult rats.  Shortly thereafter, in Portugal, Lima, et al. [153] began transplanting nasal mucosa into patients with chronic spinal cord injury and reported recovery of motor scores, as well as light touch and pinprick scores.  In total he transplanted nasal mucosa to over 160 patients with chronic spinal cord injury.  Several places, including Osaka University Medical School [154], want to continue the study.

In Brisbane, MacKay-Sim, et al. [155] successfully cultivated olfactory ensheathing cells from the nasal mucosa of 3 patients with chronic spinal cord injury and transplanted the cells into their spinal cords,  Compared with 3 patients matched for injury severity and other characteristics, the transplanted patients showed no adverse effects of the transplants. However, they also did not show any significant functional change or neuropathic pain at 3 years after the transplant.

In the largest published series to date, Huang, et al. [156] transplanted OEG isolated from olfactory bulbs of aborted fetuses into 171 patients with chronic spinal cord injury.  The patients showed significant increases in sensory scores but only modest improvements in motor function.  Dobkin, et al. [157] criticized the study, claiming that there were unreported complications and five patients did not show improvements.  Huang has denied these criticisms and published further studies suggesting that OEG transplants are safe and efficacious [158, 159].  He has transplanted OEG into over 1200 patients to date.

In summary, the discovery that OEG cells facilitate regeneration in animal spinal cords excited clinicians. Carlos Lima in Portugal transplanted autologous nasal mucosa into over 160 patients with chronic spinal cord injury with modest results.  McKay-Sim in Brisbane cultured nasal mucosa OEG cells and transplanted them into 3 patients who had no significant beneficial effects after 3 year.  Huang Beijing transplanted fetal OEG cells into more than 700 patients and find that they consistently restore significant sensory.

Human Embryonic Stem (HES) Cells

The 1977 disovery by Thomson, et al. [160] that pluripotent human embryonic stem (HES) cells can be isolated and cultivated indefinitely transformed stem cell research. The first study reporting efficacy of embryonic stem cells for spinal cord injury appeared in 1999 [172].  While several other cell transplants have reported to be beneficial for spinal cord injury, i.e. marrow stromal cells [162], fetal neural stem cells [163], and other cells [164-171], people thought that the only way to get cells for transplantation was to collect them from fetuses, blood, or bone marrow. HES cells can produce many cell types for transplants, including neural stem cells, which in turn can produce neurons, astrocytes, microglia, and oligodendroglia [161].

Geron helped fund the early work leading to the first successful cultivation of HES cells.  Working with Keirstead at UC Irvine [173-177], Geron has concentrated their attention on treating spinal cord injury with oligodendroglial progenitor cells derived from human embryonic stem cells [178-180].  However, after many announcements of clinical trials since 2005 [181], the first phase 1 trial of HES cells has not yet been approved by the FDA.

Many people assumed that the delays are due to opposition by the Bush Administration to clinical trials of HES cells in the United States, including a May 2008 hold by the FDA [182].  Some scientists are concerned that the first clinical trial of HES must be very carefully designed.  As Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute pointed out, “The last thing we need is another Jesse Gelsinger, referring to the 18-year-old man who died during a gene therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999.  After Gelsinger’s death, the FDA closed down many gene-therapy trials for several years.  Because it is the first time that human embryonic stem cells are being transplanted into human, the trial will be under a microscope and any adverse effect will be emphasized [183].

In statements to the public [184], Geron CEO Thomas Okarma has suggested that the company plans to study 40 people with acute spinal cord injury.  The trial will focus on patients who are “complete” (ASIA A) and within the first two weeks after injury.  It is not clear whether and how much immunosuppression will be used.  Geron scientists have reported that oligodendroglial cells differentiated from HES cells are not targets of innate and adaptive human effectors cells and are resistant to lysis by Neu5Gc antibodies [179]. However, Keirstead has suggeted that long-term immunosuppression may be necessary.

In summary, human embryonic stem cells have been the object of much hope and controversy.  Due to their pluripotency, many regard the cells to be a promising source of cells for transplantation.  Geron is one of the first companies to fund research leading to the first successful cultivation of human embryonic stem cells a decade ago.  The cells have not yet reached clinical trial stage. Geron chose to focus on spinal cord injury in their first clinical trials.  However, since 2005, despite repeated announcements, the first phase 1 trials have not yet been approved by the FDA.  The trial will likely study 40 patients with subacute spinal cord injury with oligodendroglial cells differentiated from a human embryonic stem cell line.  A major question is immune rejection of the cells and whether immunosuppression will be used.

Combination Therapies

Combination therapies achieve greater axonal growth than individual therapies [185].  To regenerate the spinal cord, therapies must address the following obstacles to regeneration.

Bridging the injury site.  The spinal cord injury site does not support regenerating axons for several reasons.  The injury site is disorganized, filled with inflammatory cells, lacks cellular adhesion molecules to guide axonal growth, and may contain factors the inhibit axonal growth.  Many laboratories are consequently transplanting cells or placing biomaterials to provide a bridge for axonal growth across the injury site.

Sustained source of growth factors.  Axons grow slowly, less than a mm a day.  They must grow long distances, as much as a meter, to reach their original targets.  To do so, there must be a sustained source of growth factors. Several neurotrophins, including NGF, NT-3, and GDNF are critical growth factors.  One way is to infuse the factors but a better way may be to stimulate either endogenous or transplanted cells to secrete growth factors.

Blocking growth inhibitors. Several factors block axonal growth in the spinal cord.  The best defined is the myelin-based factor Nogo.  Other include extracellular glycoproteins such as CSPG.  The former can be blocked by anti-Nogo-A antibodies, Nogo receptor blockers, rho inhibitors, and even soluble nogo receptor protein.  The latter can be digested by enzymes, including chondroitinase.

Individual therapies are being tested in clinical trials. To test combination therapies, we must have clinical trial networks that can test therapies rigorously and efficiently.  We have set up a clinical trial network to test spinal cord injury therapies in China.  Called the China Spinal Cord Injury Network (ChinaSCINet), this network currently has 25 centers in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, capable of randomizing many thousands of subjects per year.

ChinaSCINet is carrying out the first clinical trials of combination therapies of spinal cord injury, i.e. umbilical cord blood mononuclear cells (UCBMC) and lithium.  Many laboratories have reported beneficial effects of UCBMC on spinal cord injury [165-168, 170, 171, 186-188].  In 2004, Yick, et al. [189] reported that lithium stimulates regeneration in rat spinal cord. Subsequently, Su, et al. [190] found that lithium stimulates proliferation of neural stem cells in the spinal cord and Dill, et al. [191] showed that lithium promotes axon regeneration and recovery in rat spinal cord injury.

Lithium stimulates UCBMC cells to secrete NGF, NT-3, and GNDF and we therefore propose to carry out studies of lithium and UCBMC cells individually, in combination, and then with axonal growth inhibitor blockers such as anti-nogo-A antibody, nogo receptor protein, cethrin, and chondroitinase. UCBMC and lithium are attractive first therapies for clinical trial since both have been extensively used in humans for many years.  If UCBMC are effective, many cord blood banks are available to supply the cells.  Lithium is very low cost and can be taken orally.

Lessons Learned

What lessons have we learned from the above therapies for spinal cord injury?   First, the path from laboratory bench to bedside is slow and tortuous.  Second, a therapy must achieve strong proof-of-concept to convince a company, government, or foundation to invest millions for further clinical trials.  Third, despite the best planning and preclinical testing, clinical trials are inherently risky.

Slow and Tortuous Process. Few therapies go through the development gauntlet without major hitches. The average time for therapy development exceeded a decade for all therapies described above. For example, development of MP required 13 years (1977 to 1990) from first preclinical discovery to NASCIS 2.  Weight-supported treadmill locomotor training required 14 years (1991-2005).  Fampridine (1987-now) and  Nogo-A antibody (1990-now) both are likely to take over 20 years to develop. The development of Cethrin began in 2003 and may complete clinical trials before 2013. OEG (1997-now) and embryonic stem cells (1997-now) both have taken over a decade already.

Rigorous proof-of-concept of treatment efficacy is required for companies, government, or foundations to invest millions of dollars into development of a therapy. In the case of companies, intellectual property protection is also necessary.  A large part of the development time for most of the therapies resulted from a prolonged period of research to establish proof-of-concept.  In certain cases, e.g. MP and locomotor training, the clinical trials and proof-of-concept research in animals proceeded in parallel.  However, both fampridine and nogo antibody therapies went through 10 years of extensive preclinical studies before the drugs was licensed.

Clinical Trials are Inherently Risky. A single mistake in clinical trial design can set a program by five or more years.  It is important to have systematic preclinical data before starting clinical trials.  For example, NASCIS 1 compared a ten-day course of 1000 mg/day and 100 mg/day without sufficient animal to indicate the optimal dose or timing of therapy, wasting over 5 years.  A wrong choice of outcome measures, such as the choice of spasticity as the primary outcome of the Fampridine trials added over five years to the development of fampridine for spinal cord injury.  Neither OEG nor HES cells have undergone any controlled clinical trials.

The development times for spinal cord injury therapies may have been particularly long because all of the therapies are the first in their class.  For example, MP was the first neuroprotective drug, weight-supported locomotor training the first major restorative rehabilitation treatment, fampridine was the first conduction enhancing drug, nogo antibody and cethrin are the first regenerative therapies, and OEG and HES transplants are both first of their class. Trailblazing is inherently time-consuming.

Clinical trial networks should reduce treatment development times because much time and expense of clinical trials must be spent on recruiting and train clinical trial centers. Having clinical trial networks that are ready and able to test therapies will not only improve the quality of clinical trials but should speed up and defray costs significantly. This will encourage companies to invest in spinal cord injury therapies.


How soon can we expect curative therapies of spinal cord injury?  To date, most spinal cord injury therapies have taken 10-20 years to complete clinical trials.  Establishment of clinical trial networks  and increased interest of pharmaceutical companies in spinal cord injury therapies may shorten the development time.  However, until significant new funding becomes available for spinal cord injury clinical trials, the rate of progress in developing therapies is unlikely to change significantly.

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch and several promising therapies are already in the clinical trial pipeline.  Six of the 8 therapies described above are in or soon will be in clinical trials.  If each therapy has a 50% chance of success, we would have to be rather unlucky for all the trials will fail. In the case of 6 trials, the probability of all six trials failing is 1 in 64.  Clearly, it behooves us to have as many clinical trials going in parallel as possible.  The reason is that if one trial is successful, everybody wins.

The likelihood that a given clinical trial will be successful of course depends on the therapy and the amount of data supporting that particular therapy and clinical trial design.  If one rushes into a clinical trial without much preclinical data, one has a much greater risk of failure.  Since we have limited clinical trial funds and facilities, it would also increase the likelihood of successful clinical trials by focusing on those therapies that have the most supporting data.

The first successful clinical trial that restores function to people with subacute or chronic spinal cord injury will increase enthusiasm and funding for more clinical trials.  If any of the six therapies listed above, or dozens of therapies that are awaiting clinical trials, were to succeed, I believe that companies will begin investing in spinal cord injury therapies.   The first therapy is always the most difficult to get funded and moving.  Many of the therapies would also be the first of their classes, i.e. the first regenerative therapy, the first cell transplant therapy, the first remyelinative therapy.

Two types of clinical trial failures are harmful to the spinal cord injury community, the investigators, and the sponsors.  The first and worst are false negative trials, i.e. a trial that falsely indicates that treatment is ineffective, are particularly deleterious. Such trials may be underpowered, i.e. a trial that does not have enough subjects to establish significance.  It may also happen if the wrong outcome measure is chosen.  The second are inconclusive trials.  Inconclusive trials may result from poor followup and high drop out rates.

Finally, it is important to note that clinical trials that show that a treatment is ineffective are not “failures”.  Showing that a therapy does not work is just as important as showing that a therapy works.  It stops the waste of further time and resources on that particular therapy.  Thus, for example, although many people believe that umbilical cord blood cells are beneficial for spinal cord injury.  In fact, many clinics are offering these therapies as if they have already been proven to be effective and charging people for the treatment.  A rigorously conducted clinical trial that shows these therapies are ineffective will stop wasteful ineffective practices.

Summary and Conclusions

Many people frequently ask how long it will take for a cure of spinal cord injury to be available.  In the last two decades, about a dozen therapies have gone to clinical trial.  I presented 8 therapies that have been through or are going into clinical trials.

  1. High-dose methylprednisolone (MP) is the first spinal cord injury treatment to be tested in a placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial.
  2. Weight-supported locomotor training is the first rehabilitation therapy that has been shown to restore function after spinal cord injury.
  3. Fampridine (4AP) is the first therapy that improves conduction in demyelinated axons but has not yet been shown to be effective in spinal cord injury.
  4. Nogo antibody is the first therapy shown to regenerate the spinal cord of rats and is currently in phase 2 clinical trials.
  5. Cethrin is a membrane-permeable recombinant bacterial toxin C3 that blocks rho, improves recovery in animals and humans, and is in phase 2 clinical trial.
  6. Olfactory ensheathing glial (OEG) cells have been transplanted to >1000 patients with chronic spinal cord injury but has not yet been tested in a controlled trial.
  7. Human embryonic stem (HES) have been announced for clinical trial by Geron since 2005 and is still awaiting approval by the U.S. FDA.
  8. Combination therapies.  The China Spinal Cord Injury Network is now testing umbilical cord blood mononuclear cells and lithium alone and in combination.

The history of spinal cord injury therapy development teaches us three important lessons.  First, therapy development is slow and tortuous, with each therapy taking 10 or more years. Second, rigorous proof of concept is required before companies, government, or foundations will invest millions into developing a therapy. Finally, clinical trials are inherently risky.  A single mistake in trial design may set a program back by many years.

Development of curative therapies for spinal cord injury will require large clinical trial networks to test combination therapies systematically.  To regrow large numbers of axons across the injury site, therapies need to bridge the injury site with cells that support growing axons, provide a long-term source of growth factors, and block growth inhibitors in the spinal cord, as well as replace cells. We know that each of these is possible.

The China Spinal Cord Injury Network is beginning clinical trials of the first combination therapy: umbilical cord blood mononuclear cells and lithium.  Several groups had reported that cord blood cells are beneficial in animal models of spinal cord injury. Lithium enhances regeneration in the spinal cord, stimulates proliferation of cord blood cells and neural stem cells, and increases the production of neurotrophic factors.  If this combination is effective, we will add growth inhibitor blockers.

So, how long will it take?  Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch.  Six of the eight therapies described above are already in or will soon be in clinical trials.  Other therapies are achieving proof-of-concept and should reach clinical trial soon.  Even if each of these trials has only a 50% chance of success, the odds ratio that at least one will succeed in the next few years is high.  The time needed to develop curative combination therapies depends on funding and availability of clinical trial network.


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