Dogs that had lost the use of their back legs as a result of spinal injuries were able to walk again after a revolutionary transplant operation, offering new hope to paralysed patients, scientists said.
The pet dogs had all suffered serious accidental damage to their spinal cords which had left them paralysed and unable to walk normally with their hind limbs.
Following the transplant of specialised cells from the dogs' noses to the damaged nerves, most of the pets recovered their lost mobility and some were able to walk and even run on all four legs, according to a study published today.
Scientists believe the results show that people paralysed with spinal injuries could be treated with the same transplant technique, which involves transferring olfactory ensheathing cells from the nasal cavity to the spinal cord.
"Our findings are extremely exciting because they show for the first time that transplanting these types of cell into a severely damaged spinal cord can bring about significant improvement," said Professor Robin Franklin of the University of Cambridge.
"We're confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that's a long way from saying that they might be able to regain all lost functions," Professor Franklin said.
"It's more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies," he said.
The study, published in the journal Brain, involved 34 pet dogs that had suffered a severe spinal injury, such as a slipped disc, which in dogs often results in paralysis. Scientists transplanted olfactory cells in 23 of the dogs, all of which showed a significant improvement in mobility.
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, will now be used as the basis for clinical trials on humans.
However, the researchers emphasised that the cell transplants are only likely to stimulate the regrowth of spinal nerve cells over short distances.
May Hay said of her dog: "Before the trial, Jasper was unable to walk at all. But now we can't stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other dogs we own. It's utterly magic."