The Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, part of Queensland's Griffith University, was unveiled on Thursday and is expected to take the charge in conducting ground-breaking research that could see paralysed patients walk and feel again.
Researchers at the centre, led by Dr James St John, are preparing to conduct clinical trials within the next two years that aim to restore motor and sensory function to people suffering from paralysis.
"The therapy is to take specialised olfactory ensheathing cells from the nose, purify them and put them into the spinal cord where they make a bridge across the injury site," St John told The Huffington Post Australia.
"When someone has a spinal injury, some of the nerve cells die off but some of them stay and want to regenerate but a scar forms and stops them. Olfactory cells reduce the scar and provide them with a bridge to regenerate."
This exciting new therapy now offers hope to those who live with spinal cord injury that paralysis does not have to be forever.
There has already been some success in restoring movement to paralysed patients with the use of robots but so far researchers have been unable to work out how to re-establish the sensations of touch and temperature.
"When we talk to people with spinal cord injury, what we often forget is that the most important thing is to be able to touch and feel," St John said.
"Robotics do not replace the ability to touch. Cell therapy can allow the nerves involved in touch and temperature control to also be replaced -- we can restore movement and also touch."
The initiative is building on research conducted around the world throughout the last 20 years, transplanting olfactory ensheathing cells from the nose and into injured spinal cords to form a bridge allowing for nerve cell regeneration.
"This exciting therapy now offers hope to those who live with spinal cord injury that paralysis does not have to be forever," St John said.
"To some degree, it is already proven that this process can work but we need to improve the results."
In 2012, a paralysed dachshund learned to walk again after having the same transplant at the University of Cambridge.
The research team is currently dedicated to refining cellular aspects of the process, focussing on improving cell purification and finding natural products to stimulate them, which could also have implications for the treatment of acquired brain injuries.
"The spinal cord is part of the central nervous system and is like the highway of connection between the brain and the rest of the body, they have similar properties," St John said.
"What we learn can be applied to acquired brain injuries like trauma, infection or hypoxia. [In these cases] nerve cells die off and we are looking for ways to replace them – one way is to use natural products to stimulate nerve cells to regenerate."
In the lab, the research team has already found natural products that can help the olfactory ensheathing cells clean up dead and damaged cells 20 times faster than is already possible.
"We are hoping that after an injury, if you can rapidly clean it up, the nerve cells won't die off and will regenerate much faster," St John said.
"In a [spinal cord ] injury, cells die and there's a host of secondary reactions. If we can put in olfactory ensheathing cells plus natural products to make it do it faster, the clean-up will be much quicker so the cells left can make the injury much smaller."
When I first started 20 years ago, I thought it would be impossible, [it was] just too complex. I was wrong 20 years ago that we could never do it.
In order to reach their goal of conducting clinical trials from 2018 onwards, the researchers at the centre know that there is still a a lot of work to be done.
"We have a couple of years of research. It is a balance of going sooner rather than later – we are trying to get the right balance," St John said.
"We hope to have about 25 patients in our trial done in Queensland and we are looking to make the therapy available in a few years' time.
"We don't know which injuries will respond until we test them, which is why in our study we are keen to test it on a range of injuries."
The cell therapy offers unprecedented hope to the more than 12,000 Australians who currently live with spinal paralysis, with an additional 300 diagnosed each year with the condition.
"When I first started 20 years ago, I thought it would be impossible [it was] just too complex. I was wrong 20 years ago that we could never do it," St John said.
"We know now that we can restore functions and connections – can we do it so that it will be sufficient? We hope so.
"When people are injured today they are told, quite rightly so, that there is no cure. But from a science point of view we are pretty confident that we will get one soon."Suggest a correction