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VA testing spinal implant that could help paralyzed vets walk again

Marines and Sailors with Wounded Warrior Battalion-East participate in wheelchair basketball. (Lance Cpl. Miranda C. DeKorte/U. S. Marine Corps)
April 26, 2021

The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving forward with research on a new implant technology that inserts in the human spine that could allow paralyzed individuals to walk once again.

Military.com first reported on Sunday that researchers at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., launched a new study to determine whether epidural stimulator implants can help paralyzed veterans recover motor activity. The implants may also help paralyzed veterans regain control of their inner systems, such as their cardiovascular and bladder functions.

Epidural simulators have, in the past, shown some degree of success with helping regain the function of paralyzed limbs.

Research conducted at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. has already allowed three individuals to regain at least some ability to walk. Jeffrey Marquis, 35 and Kelly Thomas, 24, participated in the University of Louisville research and Jered Chinnock, 29, participated in the Mayo Clinic research. Thus far, all three have regained some ability to walk. Marquis has learned to walk with the assistance of balance poles and Thomas now walks completely unassisted.

The research beginning at the Richmond hospital is the first such study being conducted through the VA, with wounded service members in mind.

Dr. Ashraf Gorgey, chief of spinal cord injury research at the Richmond VA hospital told Military.com the VA research has two goals. The first is to see how well an epidural stimulator made by Medtronic can work on someone with spinal cord injuries and the second is to demonstrate the methods by which the technology can be implanted with only minimum surgery required.

Gorgey said the VA research calls for placing the implants in 20 different veterans and then launching into a year of regimented physical rehabilitation therapy and training.

Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Burch, who was paralyzed while stationed in Guam in 2015, became the first paralyzed service member to walk to his own promotion ceremony to corporal in 2016, with the assistance of an exoskeleton. Burch does not know the exact circumstances by which he lost the ability to walk. He remembered being in a hotel room talking to his sergeant in the afternoon and then waking up the next day on the ground outside the hotel, unable to get up when a hotel employee tried to help him up.

Since his injury, Burch has gone on to follow a regimented physical therapy schedule of 90 minutes three times a week at the VA, as well as playing on two wheelchair rugby teams.

Now Burch, 26, is hopeful to the first VA patient to regain function in his lower body and walk again after being paralyzed through the research taking place at the Richmond hospital.

“Even thinking about walking is crazy,” Burch told Military.com in March. “I look at this as a stepping-stone to a future where others like me can walk. I look at my participation in this research as a way of helping people out.”

Gorgey and Burch told Military.com that, with some success, Burch may be able to take steps unassisted following the spinal implant and year of regimented physical therapy.

“In Josh’s circumstance, the signal that’s coming from his brain through his spinal cord is interrupted. So now we are going to replace this signal with external signals that help trigger a step in movement,” Gorgey said. “By using the exoskeleton, we can train him to … hopefully stand up and walk again.”

Claudia Angeli, one of the scientists at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville said rare individuals are able to achieve “full overground ambulation” but has said nearly everyone who has received a spinal implant has been able to take a few steps during therapy, in her research.

Burch told Military.com he will apply the same strength he used to get through Marine Corps boot camp and other military training, and his initial recovery, towards this new implant and physical therapy.

“And if I don’t walk,” Burch said, “I’m going to be happy for the research that comes from the study,”