An landmark international clinical trial that aims to help people with spinal cord injury walk again launched today, thanks to joint funding support from New Zealand charity The CatWalk Trust and SpinalCure Australia.
Led by researchers at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), the eWALK trial aims to harness the power of “neuroplasticity” to restore the function of remaining spinal nerves in those living with paralysis due to traumatic spinal cord injury.
The therapy, called neurostimulation, sends electrical impulses through electrodes that sit on the surface of the skin over the spinal cord. When it is coupled with step and walking training in people with chronic paraplegia, the therapy helps to rewire the neural pathways that have been impaired.
Thanks to the support of The CatWalk Trust and SpinalCure Australia, NeuRA has now started testing this innovative technology in a randomised controlled trial lead out of Sydney, with additional sites in Chicago, Glasgow and Toledo.
“Our scientific advisory committee chose to fund this research because neurostimulation has delivered some of the most compelling results into a cure for SCI-paralysis to date — returning significant feeling and function to people who have been paralysed for many years,” said CatWalk Trust general manager Meg Speirs.
“In addition to the local research we are funding, particularly research projects at the University of Auckland’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility (SCIRF), it’s really important to contribute to offshore research projects such as the neurostimulation trial occurring at NeuRA. Our ANZAC neighbours at NeuRA are conducting world-leading research in the field of human movement disorders, and NeuRA is a world-renowned independent not-for-profit research institute,” she said.
Study lead for eWALK and Deputy Director of NeuRA Professor Simon Gandevia says the results of previous small neurostimulation studies are compelling and positive, but a lack of highly controlled clinical trials has prevented this technology from being converted into clinical practice.
“Neurostimulation is like a hearing aid for the spinal cord. The idea is that tailored electrical currents can amplify messages transmitted via surviving neural pathways, thereby enhancing communication between the brain and the body.
“Neurostimulation restores meaningful movements that would be otherwise impossible. Volunteers in research overseas have even been able to stand and walk. However, until now, researchers have not been able to test this promising technology in a clinical setting,” said Professor Gandevia.
With an estimated 3,500 Kiwis living with SCI-paralysis, growing at a rate of approximately 200 injuries per year, The CatWalk Trust believes the need for the development of treatments being made available across Australia and New Zealand is critical. While a complete cure will likely require a combination of interventions, neurostimulation is already profoundly improving volunteers’ health, abilities and quality of life.
“The impact of a spinal cord injury is life-shattering, and the effects of spinal cord injury go far beyond the loss of the ability to walk. Those who are injured also lose other everyday functions, such as bowel and bladder control, sexual function and cardiovascular stability. Not to mention the chronic and often excruciating neuropathic pain that continues throughout their life.
“Research into spinal cord injury treatments is essential to improve the outcomes for people living with spinal cord injury.
“We need to fund research like this because science is showing that huge improvements in function are possible and can increase people’s independence and wellbeing.
“The CatWalk Trust is proud to have teamed up with SpinalCure Australia to have funded the eWALK trial to date. But we need more funds to expand and assess the potential of this therapy to help people living with spinal cord injury more broadly,” said Meg Speirs.
The eWALK trial is funded by SpinalCure Australia and The CatWalk Trust, with additional funding from Spinal Cord Injuries Australia. Initial results are expected in around 18 months.
To make a donation, please visit catwalk.org.nz or to find out more about the eWALK trial, please visit neura.edu.au.
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Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) is an independent, not-for-profit research institute based in Sydney aiming to prevent, treat and cure brain and nervous system diseases, disorders and injuries through medical research.
NeuRA has long been a leader of spinal cord injury research in Australia. In 2020, NeuRA opened its new Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre thanks to funding from SpinalCure Australia, which conducts research aimed at improving the lives of those with spinal cord injuries.
Find out more at neura.edu.au
About The CatWalk Trust
The CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust raises funds to support the body of scientific opinion that says a cure for SCI will be found. The Trust was founded in 2005 by Catriona Williams, formerly one of New Zealand’s leading international equestrians who, following a riding accident in 2002, is now C6/C7 tetraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.
In 2011, CatWalk helped establish through seed funding the Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility based at the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland. The Trust operates a fully transparent and rigorous annual funding process utilising the expertise of the Neurological Foundation’s scientific Advisory Committee and its independent and international peer review process.
The CatWalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust is registered as a Charitable Trust under the Charities Act 2005. Charities Commission Registration No. CC27170.
About SpinalCure Australia
SpinalCure has been Australia’s pioneer and leader in the funding and promotion of cure-related spinal cord injury research for 25 years.
Four SpinalCure Directors live with a spinal cord injury and know what it requires physically, mentally and emotionally to cope with such a devastating condition. The Board and leadership team also includes leaders in neuroscience, pharmaceutical and medical devices and delivery of health services to injured patients.
SpinalCure identifies, funds and promotes the most promising, cure-focused medical research. Projects are reviewed by a scientific advisory panel consisting of national and international experts in the spinal cord injury field.
SpinalCure is registered as a charity with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission ABN 66 064 327 448
Find out more at spinalcure.org.au
 See Auckland Regional HealthPathways
 See New Zealand Spinal Cord Injury Registry Calendar Year Report 2019.