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Melissa's Story

Twenty-year-old Melissa Holley loves swimming at the local pool near her home in Ridgway, Colo. She works out a few times a week. But she can no longer play soccer (she was a star player in high school), or dance.

On June 25, 2000, driving from one of her waitress jobs to the other, she crashed while going around a curve. Police say she may have been speeding, and she wasn’t wearing a seat belt. One of her vertebrae was crushed, and she was paralyzed from her mid-trunk down.

"You, you don’t believe it at first. You are just like, you know, no. I can get past this; it is just temporary, it’s OK," says Holley.

Doctors offered her parents, Gwen and Roy, essentially no hope that she ever would walk again. But her father would not accept it. Roy Holley teaches leadership skills; within hours, he put his own to work, scanning the globe to prove the doctors wrong.

He found information about a new treatment designed to repair nerve damage in patients with recent spinal cord injuries.

But there was a catch. The treatment did have a great success rate, but so far only in the lab, and only in rats.

There was another catch. While the FDA has approved a clinical trial of this treatment in the U.S., the only doctors actually using it were 7,000 miles away in Israel. Researchers there, at a company called Proneuron, had been looking for a suitable human patient for months. They couldn’t believe it when Roy Holley simply called them out of the blue. The Holleys borrowed $90,000 to get her to Israel within the treatment’s two-week window.

The key to the research is macrophages, special immune cells that promote healing. But they are not found in great numbers in the spinal cord. The Israelis' revolutionary idea is to isolate them in another part of the patient's body, and then inject them into the damaged spinal cord. Doctors had never before considered this method, fearing it might aggravate the injury.

"How much she will improve, we don't know. We don't know. We don't know what to expect because she is the first one," says Dr. Valentine Fulga, who is leading the research.

For 70 per cent of the rats, the cells helped the spinal nerves regenerate. Two weeks after the procedure, Melissa began to feel sensation in her legs. When she returned to Colorado, her progress continued.

"Slowly but surely it... it, you know, spread to my ,you know, abdomen and stomach and my lower back," she says.

Her ability to move has also returned, although more slowly. Now, less than a year after her accident, Melissa can lift her once-paralyzed legs. Her Israeli surgeon, Nachshon Knoller, believes that she will walk again.

Doctors say that if this new procedure does work for Melissa, it might work for other patients with recent spinal cord injuries.

"I’ll never be satisfied until I am the way I was," says Melissa.
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