This study was designed to determine whether an intervention proven effective in the laboratory to ameliorate the effects of experimental spinal cord injury could provide sufficient benefit to be of value to clinical cases. Intraspinal olfactory ensheathing cell transplantation improves locomotor outcome after spinal cord injury in ‘proof of principle’ experiments in rodents, suggesting the possibility of efficacy in human patients. However, laboratory animal spinal cord injury cannot accurately model the inherent heterogeneity of clinical patient cohorts, nor are all aspects of their spinal cord function readily amenable to objective evaluation. Here, we measured the effects of intraspinal transplantation of cells derived from olfactory mucosal cultures (containing a mean of ∼50% olfactory ensheathing cells) in a population of spinal cord–injured companion dogs that accurately model many of the potential obstacles involved in transition from laboratory to clinic. Dogs with severe chronic thoracolumbar spinal cord injuries (equivalent to ASIA grade ‘A’ human patients at ∼12 months after injury) were entered into a randomized double-blinded clinical trial in which they were allocated to receive either intraspinal autologous cells derived from olfactory mucosal cultures or injection of cell transport medium alone. Recipients of olfactory mucosal cell transplants gained significantly better fore–hind coordination than those dogs receiving cell transport medium alone. There were no significant differences in outcome between treatment groups in measures of long tract functionality. We conclude that intraspinal olfactory mucosal cell transplantation improves communication across the damaged region of the injured spinal cord, even in chronically injured individuals. However, we find no evidence for concomitant improvement in long tract function.
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