World-first trial
of early treatment of spinal cord injury

For people with spinal cord injuries (SCIs), saving even a small measure of function can make a world of difference.

Retaining triceps function can mean being able to go to bed at night and get up in the morning, without having to wait for assistance.

Preserving hand dexterity will allow for independent feeding and bathing, or being able to drive a modified vehicle.

In very severe high-level lesions, saving one spinal ‘level’ can be the difference between relying on a ventilator and breathing independently.

Improving quality of life for SCI patients is the catalyst that drives Dr Marc Ruitenberg’s research.

Dr Ruitenberg is the head of the Neural Injury and Repair Laboratory at The University of Queensland’s School of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr Ruitenberg is currently conducting a clinical trial with a new therapy that aims to minimise tissue damage and improve recovery and rehabilitation, by reducing inflammation after the initial accident.

Trauma-induced inflammation causes further damage to the spinal cord and thus negatively impacts on future function.

“Up until now, doctors had no real treatment options to deal with this problem. We are optimistic that our research might change that.”

Dr Marc Ruitenberg

In the trial, patients are given an anti-inflammatory drug –intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg) - within hours of their spinal trauma.

Dr Ruitenberg’s team discovered in animal studies that IVIg therapy can reduce harmful inflammation and, most excitingly, improve the recovery from serious spinal cord injuries.

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg)

Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIg)

This pre-clinical work was supported by the Wings for Life Foundation and SpinalCure Australia, and helped pave the way for the clinical trial.

Recruitment officially commenced in January, and there are now three patients who have received this therapy at The Princess Alexandra (PA) Hospital, Queensland’s primary centre for spinal injury care.

It is too early to say whether they have benefited from receiving this therapy, but all have tolerated the treatment rather well.

PA spinal surgeon Dr Kate Campbell is heading up the trial with Dr Ruitenberg.

Dr Kate Campbell (right) at the launch of the clinical trial at the PA Hospital spinal unit.

Dr Kate Campbell (right) at the launch of the clinical trial at the PA Hospital spinal unit.

“One of the great benefits of IVIg is that it is quite safe and already used in the hospital for other conditions,” she says.

“As a result, we have been able to quickly progress this treatment from the lab to the clinic.”

Queensland Health estimates that 90 people sustain spinal cord injuries in the state each year, and the research team hopes to recruit a further 17 patients over the next three years.

“There are some obvious challenges we face in a large state like Queensland, in particular the need to start treating patients within 12 hours of the original trauma,” Dr Ruitenberg says.

“Time is clearly of the essence here – the sooner we can get people to the hospital, stabilise them and start the treatment, the better the outcomes are likely to be.”

Dr Marc Ruitenberg

Dr Ruitenberg says most of those people who reach the PA Hospital within the 12 hour time frame and are eligible to enrol have been willing to consent and assist with the research.

“We are immensely grateful for their support given the extraordinary stress they are under at this time,” he says.

“What we hope to achieve over the next three years is to demonstrate that this treatment is safe, and is making people recover better from these devastating injuries and improving their overall quality of life.”

CSL Behring is providing the IVIg, and funding, for the clinical trial, which Vice President R&D Strategy and External Affairs Dr Andrea Douglas says is a novel application for its flagship therapy.

“Spinal injuries are devastating, and with few options available to effectively treat the inflammation that occurs, we are very pleased that Dr Ruitenberg’s team are getting closer to finding a solution.”

Dr Andrea Douglas, CSL Behring