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DENVER (AP) – As Melissa Holley lay in a hospital bed paralyzed from her chest down after a car accident, her father spent two sleepless nights surfing the Web, hoping to find a way to heal her.

Roy Holley didn’t believe the doctors who said his 19-year-old daughter would never walk again.

What he found on the Internet was a highly experimental procedure that had proved successful in restoring some movement to rats with severed spinal cords. It had never been tried on humans.

With no other hope, her family flew the young woman to Israel, where she underwent the procedure, in which the patient’s own activated white blood cells are injected into the spinal cord in the hope that they will swallow up dead tissue and also cause regeneration of nerve cells.

A year later, Holley has regained pain sensation in her right leg, can contract some muscles in her legs and can curl her toes.

Ten percent of paralyzed patients regain some feeling anyway, without radical techniques, after receiving steroids and physical therapy. The Israeli developers of the treatment Holley underwent believe the procedure made the difference, though her U.S. doctors insist it is too soon to say.

“I didn’t want to expect anything,” she said in an interview from her home in Ridgway. “I just decided that I would take back whatever God gave me back.”

Still, her experience has opened the way for three other people to be treated by Proneuron Biotechnologies in Tel Aviv, including a 19-year-old Colorado man paralyzed after falling 400 feet while snowboarding.

Proneuron’s autologous macrophage procedure is one of several new techniques being tested on paralyzed patients by doctors on the frontiers of medical science.

Experts say it is too soon to tell how much hope any of the techniques hold, and all must be performed within days of the accident, meaning they offer no benefit so far to the 200,000 or so people in the United States who are already living with spinal cord injuries.

Most researchers believe that early action is vital in restoring movement after a spinal cord injury. Some nerve cells die because of the initial injury, but more die later because of a chemical reaction triggered by the injury.

In Holley’s case, doctors incubated white blood cells with skin from under her left arm. The activated cells, called macrophages, were then injected.

It is not clear whether the macrophages are promoting regeneration or stopping more nerve cells from dying, said W. Dalton Dietrich, scientific director at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami. The latter is more likely, according to Dietrich and Susan Howley, research director at the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in Springfield, N.J.

“This is an exciting development and the scientific community awaits more information regarding the long-term consequences of this treatment strategy in patients with spinal cord injuries,” Dietrich said.

The procedure was developed from research by Dr. Michal Schwartz at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. It is based on the knowledge that white blood cells are the body’s healers, stepping in to break down debris and help build cells back after an injury.

This healing process occurs normally everywhere else in the body except in the brain and spinal cord, which is protected by the blood-brain barrier from toxins.

Doctors bypass the barrier by injecting the macrophages directly into the spinal cord. The macrophages are taken from the patient himself to avoid a damaging immune-system reaction that could occur if cells from other donors were used.

Holley, who underwent the procedure 14 days after her accident, said she hopes to learn how to use leg braces later this year and plans to return to college for her sophomore year in the fall of 2002.

Proneuron is seeking more patients from around the world interested in trying the procedure and will pick up their transportation and living expenses as well as the cost of the treatment itself, said Dr. Valentine Fulga, senior vice president for development.

The procedure can only be performed within 14 days of the injury. Fulga said researchers have not treated enough people to make any promises.

“We are just very happy to try the treatment and learn from these people we are trying to help,” he said.

Elsewhere, researchers at Indiana University and Purdue University have teamed up to study the effects of electrical fields on spinal injuries. Three people have participated in the study since it was announced in November.

NeoTherapuetics Inc. of Irvine, Calif., began a study using the drug Neotrofin in March. It has only one patient so far. The drug, which has been shown to increase cell growth in a study of Alzheimer’s patients, must be given within seven to 21 days of the injury.

“We are essentially crossing a threshold into a new era of experiments to improve the healing process in people who have recent spinal cord injuries,” said Dr. Dan Lammertse, medical director at Craig Hospital in Englewood, where Holley is now being treated.

onthenet

Proneuron Biotechnologies: http://www.proneuron.com/

Miami Project to Cure Paralysis: http://www.miamiproject.miami.edu/

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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