Frank Reynolds still walks with occasional pain, two decades after a car accident that damaged his spine. But now he's hoping to change the lives of patients with spinal cord injuries and perhaps prevent paralysis.
"It turns out in the spinal cord, if you can spare just 10 percent of the spinal cord, so you don't have to spare 50-80 percent, a little bit spare 10 percent, the spinal cord itself will rewire, and find that healthy tissue, and send it's signal through the scar," said InVivo CEO Frank Reynolds.
His solution is a fingertip sized scaffold. It's designed to be implanted directly on the damaged area within days after trauma as shown in this animation provided by Reynold's company, InVivo. He says the scaffold acts like a bridge -- theoretically allowing some tissue to heal, without hardening into scar tissue.
"As a result of less scarring, the body, brain and spinal cord through neural plasticity will make use of that spare tissue and send signal through that spared tissue," said Reynolds.
He says regeneration has already been demonstrated in animal trials. In a video a monkey is seen that lost motor function in its back legs after a surgically induced spinal cord trauma. In another video, the animal on the right, had the same induced trauma, followed by the scaffold implant. Researchers say it regained normal movement within weeks.
"We have 44 monkeys in the study, all of our treated monkeys are up and running in three weeks," said Reynolds.
The company is meeting with the FDA right now and is hoping to begin human safety trials this summer. If it gets the go ahead, it could mark a turning point in the approach to treating paralysis.
"It's a logical approach since the spinal cord injury in people is usually involved in contusion injury, which is like a bruise to the spinal cord," said Michael Beattie, Ph.D., UCSF, SF General Trauma Institute
Beattie says a number of local researchers are looking at similar scaffold strategies -- some employing stem cells. But he cautions that it may be some time before they're ready for clinical use.
"A lot more work needs that need to be done particularly in terms of safety. When you are putting things into for example an incomplete lesion, the one thing you don't want to do is create additional damage," said Beattie.
Still, with no real options available, Reynolds believes his device, along with emerging technologies will offer the first real hope for preventing paralysis.
"I can tell you, I have hundreds of friends in wheelchairs, and it's my passion to help them," said Reynolds.
The device itself is made from a material that's already FDA approved for other uses in the body. Developers say it's absorbed by the surrounding tissue and does not require a second surgery to remove it.
Written and produced by Tim Didion