June 25, 2020
In the episode “Ethics” of the legendary series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, we encounter a life-saving technology similar to what we are developing today. Lieutenant Worf, chief of security aboard the Enterprise, gets hit with multiple heavy barrels during a routine surveillance of cargo, and is knocked out. He awakens in the ship’s sickbay, unable to move his body; he has become a quadriplegic, meaning that all four of his limbs are paralysed. As the news sinks in, he begins to retreat into his thoughts, and soon, he gives up.
This is a scenario for which far too many people can relate to. It is true that not many people have served aboard a starship, but ignoring the specific details of the situation, this scenario feels real. A crushed spine, each vertebrae damaged in some way through a cascade of broken vertebra and related injuries is the reality for many people. The spinal cord cannot recover after such a severe injury, and whoever sustains one will have to learn to live with their disability permanently. However, there is hope! In the same episode, a neuro specialist suggests a radical treatment: replicate a new spine for Worf, transplant it into his body, and then simply discard the damaged one. Suffice it to say that much controversy was met with this radical treatment, but setting aside fiction, could this be done in the real world? In short, no; not yet anyways, but there could be a way through stem cells- undifferentiated cells that can become anything in the body or any body part of the organism it came from.
Stem cell researchers are actually looking into creating organs and even nerves that can be successfully transplanted into humans. There is a much higher demand for organ transplants than there is a supply of organs, and according to the NCBI PMC article “The Future of Organ Replacement”, the current medical system has even less of an ability to perform nerve transplants. Spinal cord transplants are currently out of the question as one has never even been attempted in an adult human – yet.
Stem cell researchers have been searching for a way to make spinal cords to replace those that are permanently damaged. It is a long way from being applied in practice, as Lieutenant Worf is the first to have one done, and he will not be born unil the year 2340. In all seriousness, progress is being made, and maybe someday, people with debilitating diseases and injuries will be able to regain their mobility — and their independence.