A man who was left paralysed by a severe spinal cord injury has reported that he is now able to stand and walk by himself thanks to a pioneering new stem cell treatment.

Chris Barr, 57, was left unable to feed, dress or walk by himself as a result of a traumatic surfing accident seven years ago, where he fell from the crest of a wave. Doctors told him at the time that the accident could leave him permanently paralysed. [1]

However, this month it’s been reported that Barr has started to not only regain basic mobility, but also the ability to stand and walk again after undergoing an experimental stem cell treatment.

As a participant along with 10 other patients in a clinical trial run by the Mayo Clinic, Barr underwent a procedure being hailed by many as the future of spinal cord injury treatment. [2]

The process involves extracting stem cell rich fat from the stomach through a biopsy, the isolation of the powerful mesenchymal stem cells from this fat tissue, their expansion into 100 million cells and their injection into the lumbar spine in the lower back. [3]

Because mesenchymal stem cells have the unique ability to transform into other cell types, they can be used to repair and replace cells that have become damaged through injury, such as those in Mr Barr’s spinal cord.

The success of the experimental treatment was measured against the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) Impairment Scale, which is used as a reference for determining the severity levels of paralysis.

As a result of the trial, 70% of the participants moved up at least one level on the ASIA scale, while 30% reported no improvement or worsening in their conditions and no serious adverse effects were reported by all participants.

It’s estimated that around 50,000 people live with spinal cord injury in the UK, with 2,500 individuals sustaining spinal cord injuries every year. [4] [5]

More research is needed into the effectiveness of this form of treatment – stem cell therapies are still classed as ‘experimental’ in the U.S. – but what’s undeniable is that stem cells have managed to give Chris Barr his life and freedom back. 

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[1] Gooding, D. (2024, April 4). Paralysed surfer says stem cell treatment using belly fat helped him to walk again. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/spinal-cord-injury-stem-cell-treatment-success-b2522933.html

[2] Lindquist, S. B. (2024, April 1). Study documents safety, improvements from stem cell therapy after spinal cord injury. Mayo Clinic News Network. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/study-documents-safety-improvements-from-stem-cell-therapy-after-spinal-cord-injury/

[3] Bydon, M., Qu, W., Moinuddin, F.M. et al. Intrathecal delivery of adipose-derived mesenchymal stem cells in traumatic spinal cord injury: Phase I trial. Nat Commun 15, 2201 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-46259-y

[4] Rhind, J. (2023, November 28). How Many Spinal Cord Injuries Occur Each Year? JMW. https://www.jmw.co.uk/articles/spinal-injuries/how-many-spinal-cord-injuries-each-year

[5] Back Up Trust (n.d.). What is spinal cord injury? Back Up. Retrieved April 10, 2024, from https://www.backuptrust.org.uk/spinal-cord-injury/what-is-spinal-cord-injury


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