Experimental therapy gives paralyzed new hope

Rob Summers, who was paralyzed after being hit by a drunk driver, has received an experimental therapy has allowed him to regain some movement in his lower extremities.
CBS

A new study is giving hope to millions who are paralyzed as the result of spinal cord injuries. The results of a new treatment challenge the conventional thinking that signals from the brain are needed for walking.

It might be a small step for 25-year-old Rob Summers, of Portland, Ore., but it's a giant leap for the five-and-a-half million people with spinal cord injuries.

Paralyzed man stands up, thanks to new therapy

Five years ago, "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge reported, the elite athlete had dreams of becoming a major league baseball player, but was struck by a drunk driver while standing outside his home.

"The car then drove off, leaving me there with nothing and no help, no hope," Summers said.

Doctors told Summers he would never walk again. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Summers said he was told, " 'You'll never take a step. Nothing."'

But his life changed after meeting Dr. Susan Harkema, of the University of Louisville. He became the first patient to take part in an experimental therapy for his type of paralysis.

Summers' injury disrupted the nerve pathway that normally triggers walking. Researchers implanted an electrical stimulator at the base of the spine that -- along with special exercises -- enabled his legs to move without input from the brain.

Having gone four years without any movement in his lower body, he was standing on his own in just three days -- a breakthrough that could change the future treatment of paralysis.

Summers said, "It was absolutely an incredible feeling."

Now, he can even take a few steps on a treadmill.

The results of the research have been published in the medical journal Lancet. The research was funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which was established after the late actor suffered his spinal cord injury.

The foundation's Susan Howley says, "These are early days, this is a first step, we have a very long way to go, but I think the implications are enormous. And I think Christopher Reeve would be very, very pleased."

And on "The Early Show," Rob Summers said he went into the therapy with "an open mind and a strong work ethic."

"I was optimistic from day one," he said.

Summers said when he regained some movement in his lower extremities it was "incredible."

"After not having moved anything for four years, and being able to stand, it was the best feeling I've ever had," he said.

Dr. Susan Harkema, who spearheaded the effort for the experimental therapy, said on "The Early Show" she was surprised how early Summers responded to the treatment.

She said, "It was gratifying to know that decades of research by many scientists had reached a point where it might help people with paralysis."

Harkema said Summers was a good candidate because he had no motor activity in his limbs.

She explained, "A lot of scientific decisions went into (our decision). ... We trained him intensely to make sure that there wasn't any possibility of recovery before we took this next step."

Since the therapy began, Summers said his life has changed.

He said, "Now I can stand. I've gotten my confidence back to just go out in the public, and be out in the world again. As well as I work on standing for one hour a day, as well as voluntary movement. I can move my toes, ankles, knees and hips, all on command. And that's just an amazing feeling to be able to get that back."

Summers said his next goal is to stand and walk "completely normal(ly)"

He said, "I'm working towards that every day."

Harkema said there's a long road ahead.

"There's technology that needs to be developed, and more research, and testing it in other people," she said. "But it just opened up a whole new set of opportunities."

Going mainstream with these therapies, Harkema said is the goal.

"That's what we're working towards," she said. "An important aspect is that there's knowledge we have now that can make incremental changes in people's lives. And so we need to start there, and then just continue to learn more about the circuitry and how we can take advantage of it to improve function and people's quality of life."

Wragge asked, "The doctor said you'll never take another step again. What did you tell him?"

"I said, 'I'm going to walk,'" Summers said.

Wragge said, "And you're doing it."