From: Will Dunham, Reuters
Published September 17, 2007 08:20 AM

Experimental therapy may ease spinal cord injury

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An experimental body cooling treatment used on an injured National Football League player offers promise for preventing paralysis in people who sustain severe spinal cord injuries, experts said on Thursday.

But the value of "modest hypothermia," the treatment used on Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills after he was injured in a game on Sunday, remains controversial among some doctors who want to see more evidence it helps those patients.

The idea behind the treatment is to lower the body temperature -- but not by too much in order to avoid other complications -- to restrict damage to the spinal cord.

"Right now, it's not mainstream medicine," said Dr. Barth Green, co-founder of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami, who has helped develop the treatment.

"But it's an amazing technique," said Green, who has consulted with Everett's doctors. "I think it's very likely he's going to walk again. Nothing is guaranteed in life. But every day he's getting better."

Everett, 25, sustained the injury tackling an opposing player in an apparently routine play. He is being treated at Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital in Buffalo, New York.

Doctors initially feared Everett would be paralyzed, but said he had now, among other things, moved his legs and wiggled his toes in what they called a surprising recovery. Doctors said his spinal cord was not severed. They removed him from his ventilator on Wednesday.

Doctors quickly gave the injured player cold saline intravenously to drop his body temperature to 92 degrees F (33.3 degrees C) from the normal 98.6 degrees (37 degrees C).

"What normally happens is over the next hours and days, the spinal cord itself undergoes massive self-destruction from swelling, from more hemorrhaging, from chemicals that sort of eat up the spinal cord once the damage is started," Green said.

GOING INTO HIBERNATION

Cooling the body places the spinal cord in a sort of state of hibernation, preventing the damage from worsening, he added. "A bad injury, instead of becoming permanent, becomes partial and becomes temporary. And that's what happened with Kevin," Green said.

Some doctors use hypothermia treatment on people with other conditions, but the use in spinal cord injuries is new.

"All the indicators are that this makes a ton of sense to try to help these people with spinal cord injury," said William Worthen, president and chief executive of Irvine, California-based Alsius Corp., which makes products for intravenous cooling.

But Stephen Scheff, a University of Kentucky professor of anatomy and neurobiology, said the jury was still out on the effectiveness of the treatment for spinal cord injuries.

Scheff wondered whether other treatments given to the player may have been responsible, perhaps including the use of a steroid medication.

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Scheff also noted that unlike many spinal cord injury patients, Everett was seen by doctors just moments after the injury occurred and received treatment immediately -- factors that can improve medical outcomes.

But he said there were no signs the treatment could harm the patient.

"Here's the bottom line on this: there's nothing that really works for really sensational recovery from spinal cord injury. Everybody's searching for that," Scheff said.

His doctors said Everett still faced potentially life-threatening blood clots and the threat of a stroke.

Dr. Kevin Gibbons, head of the hospital's neurological intensive care unit, was asked if Everett would walk again. He said the odds were long but "I wouldn't bet against it."

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