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LONDON (AP) -- Three years ago, doctors reported that zapping a paralyzed man's spinal cord with electricity allowed him to stand and move his legs. Now they've done the same with three other patients, suggesting their original success was no fluke.
Experts say it's a promising development but warn that the experimental treatment isn't a cure. When the implanted device is activated, the men can wiggle their toes, lift their legs and stand briefly. But they aren't able to walk and still use wheelchairs to get around.
"There is no miracle cure on the way," said Peter Ellaway, an emeritus professor of physiology at Imperial College London, who had no role in the study. "But this could certainly give paralyzed people more independence and it could still be a life-changer for them."
In a new study published Tuesday in the British journal Brain, researchers gave an update on Rob Summers, of Portland, Oregon, the first to try the treatment, and described successful results for all three of the other men who have tried it. All had been paralyzed from below the neck or chest for at least two years from a spinal cord injury.
The study's lead author, Claudia Angeli of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center at the University of Louisville, said she believes the device's zapping of the spinal cord helps it to receive simple commands from the brain, through circuitry that some doctors had assumed was beyond repair after severe paralysis.
Dustin Shillcox, 29, of Green River, Wyoming, was seriously injured in a car crash in 2010. Last year, he had the electrical device surgically implanted in his lower back in Kentucky. Five days later, he wiggled his toes and moved one of his feet for the first time.
"It was very exciting and emotional," said Shillcox. "It brought me a lot of hope."
Shillcox now practices moving his legs for about an hour a day at home in addition to therapy sessions in the lab, sometimes wearing a Superman T-shirt for inspiration. He said it has given him more confidence and he feels more comfortable going out.
"The future is very exciting for people with spinal cord injuries," he said.
The study's other two participants - Kent Stephenson of Mount Pleasant, Texas and Andrew Meas of Louisville, Kentucky - have had similar results.
"I'm able to (make) these voluntary movements and it really changed my life," Stephenson said. He said the electrical device lets him ride on an off-road utility vehicle all day with his friends and get out of the wheelchair.
"I've seen some benefits of (the device) training even when it's turned off," he added. "There have been huge improvements in bowel, bladder and sexual function."
The new study was paid for by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and others.
Experts said refining the use of electrical stimulators for people with paralysis might eventually prove more effective than standard approaches, including medicines and physical therapy.
"In the next five to 10 years, we may have one of the first therapies that can improve the quality of life for people with a spinal cord injury," said Gregoire Courtine, a paralysis expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who was not part of the study.
Ellaway said it was unrealistic to think that paralyzed people would be able to walk after such treatment but it was feasible they might eventually be able to stand unaided or take a few steps.
"The next step will be to see how long this improvement persists or if they will need this implant for the rest of their lives," he said.
The National Institutes of Health is investing in more advanced stimulators that would better target the spinal cord as well as devices that might work on people who are paralyzed in their upper limbs.
LONDON (AP) -- In a north London hospital, scientists are growing noses, ears and blood vessels in the laboratory in a bold attempt to make body parts using stem cells.
It is among several labs around the world, including in the U.S., that are working on the futuristic idea of growing custom-made organs in the lab.
While only a handful of patients have received the British lab-made organs so far- including tear ducts, blood vessels and windpipes - researchers hope they will soon be able to transplant more types of body parts into patients, including what would be the world's first nose made partly from stem cells.
"It's like making a cake," said Alexander Seifalian at University College London, the scientist leading the effort. "We just use a different kind of oven."
During a recent visit to his lab, Seifalian showed off a sophisticated machine used to make molds from a polymer material for various organs.
Last year, he and his team made a nose for a British man who lost his to cancer. Scientists added a salt and sugar solution to the mold of the nose to mimic the somewhat sponge-like texture of the real thing. Stem cells were taken from the patient's fat and grown in the lab for two weeks before being used to cover the nose scaffold. Later, the nose was implanted into the man's forearm so that skin would grow to cover it.
Seifalian said he and his team are waiting for approval from regulatory authorities to transfer the nose onto the patient's face but couldn't say when that might happen
The potential applications of lab-made organs appear so promising even the city of London is getting involved: Seifalian's work is being showcased on Tuesday as Mayor Boris Johnson announces a new initiative to attract investment to Britain's health and science sectors so spin-off companies can spur commercial development of the pioneering research.
The polymer material Seifalian uses for his organ scaffolds has been patented and he's also applied for patents for their blood vessels, tear ducts and windpipe. He and his team are creating other organs including coronary arteries and ears. Later this year, a trial is scheduled to start in India and London to test lab-made ears for people born without them.
"Ears are harder to make than noses because you have to get all the contours right and the skin is pulled tight so you see its entire structure," said Dr. Michelle Griffin, a plastic surgeon who has made dozens of ears and noses in Seifalian's lab.
"At the moment, children who need new ears have to go through a really invasive procedure involving taking cartilage from their ribs," Griffin said, adding that taking fat cells from patients' abdomens to add to a lab-made ear scaffold would be far easier than the multiple procedures often necessary to carve an ear from their ribs. Griffin added they plan to eventually create an entirely synthetic face but must first prove their polymer scaffolds won't accidentally burst out of the skin.
"Scientists have to get things like noses and ears right before we can move onto something like a kidney, lungs or a liver, which is much more complicated," said Eileen Gentleman, a stem cell expert at King's College London, who is not involved in Seifalian's research.
"Where Seifalian has led is in showing us maybe we don't need to have the absolutely perfect tissue for a (lab-made) organ to work," she said. "What he has created is the correct structure and the fact that it's good enough for his patients to have a functional (windpipe), tear duct, etc. is pretty amazing."
Some scientists predicted certain lab-made organs will soon cease to be experimental.
"I'm convinced engineered organs are going to be on the market soon," said Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, a professor of transplantation biology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She has transferred lab-made blood vessels into a handful of patients and plans to offer them more widely by 2016, pending regulatory approval. Still, she acknowledged doctors will have to watch closely for any long-term side effects, including the possibility of a higher cancer risk.
Seifalian estimated about 10 million pounds ($16 million) has gone into his research since 2005 but said he hoped lab-made organs would one day be available for a few hundred dollars.
"If people are not that fussy, we could manufacture different sizes of noses so the surgeon could choose a size and tailor it for patients before implanting it," he said. "People think your nose is very individual and personal but this is something that we could mass produce like in a factory one day."