RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Doctors at McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond are working on a way to allow paralyzed veterans to walk again. It’s the goal of their clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of a non-invasive version of a procedure called epidural stimulation.
Army veteran Luke Sprotte, 39, is participating in the trial. He was left paralyzed from the waist down after an accident in 2009 while he was stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.
“I slipped and fell off a rope climb I was doing,” Sprotte said.
As part of the trial, Sprotte has been using a device, known as an exoskeleton, for months. The robotic suit allows him to walk based on his body’s rhythm.
“If you shift to the left, [the machine] advances the right leg,” said Dr. Ashraf Gorgey, Director of Spinal Cord Research at McGuire. “If you shift to the right, [the machine] advances the left leg, and this is how you get this reciprocal pattern of stepping.”
Exoskeletons have been widely used for about a decade on spinal cord injury patients. Now doctors want to take the next step, allowing the machines to do less of the work and the patient to do more.
The process begins with a procedure called epidural stimulation. The traditional epidural stimulation procedure calls for the breaking of bone in the spine to implant tiny electrodes or leads.
McGuire is one of only two centers in the world using a new non-invasive version of the procedure as part of this trial.
“We use a needle to thread the leads inside the needle,” Gorgey said. “Get into the spine, pull the needle out and keep the leads inside.”
Then, he says, a stimulator is implanted. Procedures Sprotte has already gone through.
“It was relatively non-invasive, and we were up and going by the same day,” Sprotte said.
Once the electrodes and stimulator are implanted, doctors begin a process called mapping which allows them to locate nerves that may be stimulated to provide a sensation that could lead to the movement of previously paralyzed limbs.
“The big thing that we notice is just three weeks after implantation their leg muscles come back as normal, surprisingly, without doing any exercise other than turning on the stimulator,” Gorgey said. “So, we train the patient to step, that’s the whole idea. Then we can get rid of the exoskeleton for the patient to stand, step and walk.”
It’s a potentially major breakthrough for some 45,000 veterans living with spinal cord injuries. Sprotte is still early in the process, but he’s hopeful.
“This is probably the most hopeful technology that I’ve researched anyways,” Sprotte said. “I try not to get too optimistic but I’m hoping that everything works as well as it has for other participants here and I’m taking some steps with any luck. It’d be definitely a change. It’s been a long time, it’s been a long time being on wheels.”
The epidural stimulation trial at McGuire VA Medical Center is being funded by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. So far two veterans have completed the trial using the non-invasive procedure, with varying degrees of success.
More than a dozen more veterans, like Sprotte, will be recruited to go through the process.