Rob Summers, a 25-year-old day trader paralyzed from the chest down five years ago, now stands on his own with the aid of a Medtronic Inc. device originally designed for a different application.
The device, sold by Minneapolis-based Medtronic to control pain, delivers electrical stimulation to Summers’ lower spinal cord that helps him move his toes, ankles, knees and hips, and even take steps on a treadmill with the aid of a harness. The Los Angeles man’s case, described in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet, may spell hope for about 12,000 U.S. patients who incur spinal cord injuries yearly.
“It was my ultimate goal to recover from day one” after being hit by a car and injured, Summers said today in a telephone interview. “I had it in my mind I was going to walk again.”
Summers, who had feeling in his legs but couldn’t move them, first underwent 170 sessions of physical therapy in which his legs and feet were manipulated to mimic the movement of walking. The repetition retrained nerves in his spinal cord to recognize the motion needed to walk.
The device, implanted in Summers’ spine, helps the nerves understand the signals they get, said V. Reggie Edgerton, a specialist in spinal control at the University of California Los Angeles, who treated Summers.
“The stimulation doesn’t induce movement,” Edgerton said in a conference call with reporters. “It lets the spinal cord hear the information from the legs.”
It was a surprise when Summers was able to regain voluntary control in his leg, Edgerton said.
“We have no idea what the mechanisms are,” he said. “I was afraid to believe it when I first saw it. You can regain voluntary control but only in the presence of the stimulation.”
Spinal cord injuries damage the body’s nerve-relay system, paralyzing a patient below the point of injury. The breakthrough, which builds on 30 years of research, was demonstrated in 1998 in cats that were able to stand and step with the assistance of drugs, stimulation, and training, according to the report.
It took Summers three years of physical therapy to become eligible for the study, he said. Before the device was implanted, he had no control over movement of his legs, even after two years in training. Three days after resuming therapy with the device implanted, he stood, Summers said.
“This is not a trivial process, and it’s not ready for primetime in the patient community,” said Susan Howley, the executive vice president for research at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which provided funding for the study. “It’s the first step on a journey.”
College Baseball Player
Summers was a pitcher for Oregon State University in 2006 when the team won the college baseball title. He was struck by a hit-and-run driver while playing in the 2006 offseason for the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League’s Aloha Knights, he said. Spending his life as an athlete may have aided him in his recovery, Howley said.
In addition, Summers’ injury was rated “B” on the American Spinal Injury Association’s classification system, which means he had feeling below the injury although he couldn’t move. It’s not clear how well the method will work in patients with more serious injuries, who have no sensation below the hurt part of the spinal cord.
Medtronic’s device, called RestoreADVANCED, is “dated technology developed for pain management” though it could be improved, wrote Gregore Courtine, Rubia van den Brand and Pavel Musienko, authors of a related editorial, who are neurology researchers at the University of Zurich. Still, today’s results “should stimulate a surge of research,” they said.
Funding for the study came from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Medtronic wasn’t involved in the study, though it supports “exploration of new applications for spinal cord stimulation,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
“We are intrigued by the results of the study and pleased the patient is doing well,” Medtronic said.
About 12,000 new spinal cord injuries occur every year in the U.S, and most people are hurt in car accidents, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center in Birmingham, Alabama. Complications can include difficulty breathing, urinating, and psychological side-effects like depression and anxiety, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Summers also experienced improved bladder functioning, sexual function, and internal temperature regulation. He’s also feeling more confident, and is planning on making a movie to tell his life story, he said.
“You don’t see a lot of paralyzed people in the world because you’re ashamed or embarrassed,” Summers said. “I know I was. And this has given me back my confidence.”
For now, he is focusing on recovery full-time, and working as a day trader out of his apartment in Los Angeles because it doesn’t interfere with his therapy. He likes to trade commodity futures, he said.
“The farmers in the Midwest finally got their corn crops up,” Summers said. “Looks like a good harvest this year.”