As studies on lab rats and mice prove disappointing, scientists have started turning their attention to dogs in order to study paralysis and how certain tests may correlate to improved mobility in humans.
Spinal cord injuries rank among the most costly for patients over the course of a lifetime, with a 25-year-old racking up $729,000 to $3.2 million in total expenses. It's for this reason, and a host of others, that researchers at Texas A&M College of Veterinary & Biomedical Science are developing a therapy that allows dogs, and later humans, to reclaim some of their lost mobility.
"One of the big obstacles in the past has been a lot of the research has used rodents and experimental animals," lead researcher Dr. Jonathan Levine, an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Texas A&M, told CBS Dallas/Fort Worth. "Despite an abundance of clinical trials a lot of money spent in humans, the results have been disappointing."
Funded by a $900,000 grant from the Department of Defense to research noninvasive methods to treat spinal cord injuries, Levine and his team have been running scores of tests on dogs with herniated disks, paralysis, and ill-functioning limbs. Like in humans, the dogs' bodily functions have been compromised as a result, such as restricted bladder use and range of motion.
To combat these effects, the team has been tinkering with a drug designed to block enzymes — proteins causing chemical changes in the body — that break down the spinal cord following an injury.
"Hopefully what that is going to lead to is better mobility, better ability to empty the bladder and that is going to be beneficial of course to dogs and hopefully that can be scaled up to humans as well," said Levine.
One of the challenges Levine faces is finding a drug, or a set of drugs, that can apply to spinal cord injuries' wide range of symptoms. The location, severity, effects, and damage of a spinal cord injury all frequently vary depending on the victim. Levine believes dogs can offer a similar type of diversity.
"Because these injuries happen naturally they are more diverse," explained Levine. "Affected dogs are out in the environment, they're not all the same breed, the injuries don't happen the same way. So the diversity probably gives a little advantage exploring theories into the possible treatment of dogs and humans with SCI," said Levine.
According to Mayo Clinic, a spinal cord injury is "damage to any part of the spinal cord or verves at the end of the spinal canal." Many recent victims of spinal cord injuries report their strength, sensations, and bodily functions as experiencing permanent deficiencies.
One such victim, Glendon Bentley, executive director of the Lone Star Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, has been in a wheelchair since 1996 and looks upon Levine's study as potentially life-altering.
"Anything to improve the quality of life, that would be the best," Bentley said. "If this works and actually rejuvenates some of the spinal cord nerve endings it could alleviate some of that pain. It could also allow them to possibly go from a wheelchair to a walker or leg braces, and that would be phenomenal."