Trials have begun on the use of an anti-inflammatory drug with potentially life-changing implications for the future of spinal injuries.
Spinal cord injuries are different from many other injuries in that the damage to the tissues will often continue after the initial injury occurs. The swelling and inflammation accompanying such injuries has damaging effects on nerve tissue and, over time, can spread to surrounding healthy tissue.
Dr Mark Ruitenberg, who is leading the trial, explained that the treatment aims to target this 'secondary phase' of spinal injuries, whereby the unaffected tissue surrounding the site of the primary, irreversible injury, begins to become damaged.
"When the spinal cord gets injured...a lot of things happen including a lot of inflammation," Ruitenberg told The Huffington Post Australia.
"This inflammation is having a negative impact on the tissue that is still preserved at the time of the injury.
We have found in the laboratory setting...that [in] the vast majority of people that sustain a spinal cord injury, that injury is almost never anatomically complete
"The more tissue one loses, the less likely the prospects for a recovery of function."
The drug -- which is actually made from purified antibodies found within our own blood -- can target this harmful inflammation, with researchers hopeful that it will aid in preventing the loss of healthy tissue.
"There is a degree of damage that happens at the time of the injury and depending on how severe that is, that dictates the disability a person will have," Ruitenberg said.
"We have found in the laboratory setting...that [in] the vast majority of people that sustain a spinal cord injury, that injury is almost never anatomically complete.
"There is always tissue left there, it's not a nice cut that is completely severed.
"What happens over time is that the lesion grows bigger, more nerve tissue is lost so that the tissue that was initially fine becomes effected and degenerates over time."
We will be able to hopefully give people function back that they would otherwise not have gotten
While every injury is different, the use of the anti-inflammatory could have an enormous impact in the recovery of patients from spinal injuries, however, as Ruitenberg explained, the administering of the drug is a race against the clock.
"[We are] conducting more pre-clinical work to see how long we can delay the treatment. For now, we have sort of decided that we want to keep it within 12 hours of injury, already we have some indications it may be effective up to 24 hours," he said.
"Our treatment is one that protects the spare nerve tissue.
"We will be able to hopefully give people function back that they would otherwise not have gotten."
Ruitenberg made a point of emphasising that the work he has carried out so far would not have been possible without grants, with the work leading up to the trial funded through the Wings For Life Foundation.
"We were lucky enough to get one of those grants and it has been critical in terms of funding the research in our laboratory, making the discovery on how effective this drug was and then obviously providing the evidence in a way that we need to go on and do clinical trials."