Breaking free: walking in spite of paralysis

Case study

The challenge

To develop new treatments to help people with severe spinal cord injuries to walk again, a goal which has eluded science and medicine for centuries. 

The solution

Prof Ronaldo Ichiyama’s research showed that a specific combination of epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, together with daily rehabilitation and medication, can help small animals with severe spinal cord injuries to take weight-supported steps. This research provided the essential foundation for translation to humans with severe paralysing spinal cord injury. Teams across the world adapted Ichiyama’sapproach in their work with humans with amazing results. Paralysed people in clinical trials in three research centres across America and Europe are now able to stand, take weight-bearing steps and independently walk once more.  

The impact

This intervention is the first in medical history to restore walking ability to people with a paralysing complete spinal cord injury. In addition, the combination treatment has enabled these people to gain significant improvement of other bodily functions, including bowel and bladder function. 

The impact on people who believed that they would be paralysed for the rest of their lives is profound.  The person who regained the most function in these clinical trials can now walk independently using a frame for support. The wider impact of this research is palpable. Charities focused on spinal cord injuries reported increased interest from the general public and a significant rise in donations. The commercial medical device sector is investing in technology to support this innovation, with the aim of bringing these life-changing results to more people with spinal cord injuries. This has given hope to paralysed people that they, too, will be able to walk again.