Cape Town - Groundbreaking stem cell surgery has been performed for the first time in South Africa at a Cape Town hospital, it has been confirmed.
The Melomed Group, which manages the Melomed Bellville Private Hospital, confirmed to the Cape Argus that a groundbreaking embryonic stem cell transplantation procedure was performed on Mr Thomas Prins, treated at the Melomed Bellville Hospital by world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr Adriaan Liebenberg.
Two operations took place, on October 10 and 24.
Liebenberg said in an interview: “This has never been done before anywhere in the world as far as we are aware of.”
On Prins’s condition, he reported: “So far the results are giving us reason for cautious optimism. If the patient continues to improve then we expect that we have new and unexpected hope for paralysed people all over the world.”
Prins told the Cape Argus: “I’ve waited for this for a very long time. I’m honoured to be the first one. I’ve had only positive results so far, so I’m really glad I did it.
“I dived into a sand bank in Haartenbos, under a wave and hit my head, on March 11, 2006.
“When I hit my head I tried to swim straight afterwards. My friends turned me around and I was on the beach for around two hours before the ambulance came. They took me to Mossel Bay hospital and the next day took me to Groote Schuur.
“When I arrive at Groote Schuur doctors basically said I’d never be able to walk again.
“I had no movement or feeling in any of my limbs. I have been a quadriplegic since then.
“I have regained sensation all over my body. I have gone from a complete injury to an incomplete injury, and am very optimistic. Every day there are new muscle groups which wake up. We can see flexes in muscles which wouldn’t move before.
“I can move my right wrist already, and my left wrist is slowly coming along. My bicep muscle can contract voluntarily.”
“It inspires me, motivates me to exercise harder every day,” Prins told the Cape Argus.
Liebenberg explained that the aim had been to restore function of the spinal cord.
“There were two procedures. The first was performed on October 10, 2012.
“There was a standard spinal fusion operation performed. At the end of the fusion operation, a second stage was performed, which is the procedure under question. In this revolutionary procedure, autologous embryonic stem cells were used in an attempt to grow back a 35mm defect in the spinal cord of the paralysed patient.
“In a six-hour procedure, the scar tissue that separated the two ends of the spinal cord was removed whilst electrophysiological monitoring by a neurophysiologist was used to limit damage to the functioning sections of the spinal cord. After the scar was completely removed, a special matrix containing autologous embryonic stem cells and growth factors were sealed in the defect.
“The procedure was carried out without any complications.”
A fortnight later, a second, much shorter procedure was performed on October 24.
“In this procedure, the stem cell mass was augmented with more embryonic stem cells and a residual fluid leak from the spinal cord was corrected,” the doctor said.
Of the patient’s subsequent healing process, he said: “There were no complications in the recovery and the patient initially had no decrease in function.
“Since then there has been improvement in the function of both arms. The existing muscle function has improved in power and there has been new muscle movement in three muscle groups on the right and in two muscle groups on the left.
“The patient has return of partial sensation throughout the body. This represents a staggering early response. The interim and final clinical results will be reported on by an independent clinician.”
The hospital said before the procedure had been authorised, the Melomed Group had requested that Liebenberg provide all the necessary and most recent documentation “with regards to the required statutory and regulatory authorisation, including Mr Thomas Prins’ consent”.
“In good faith we accepted the said documentation provided to us by Dr Liebenberg, deliberated the ethical considerations therein and on that basis proceeded to allow Dr Liebenberg to perform this ground breaking stem cell transplant operation at our Melomed Bellville Private Hospital.”
The hospital group said it had also received various permissions from a wide range of authorities – all of which had said there was no reason why the doctor could not proceed.
The hospital group said Prins was “now showing significant progress and signs of possible return of sensation and some muscle activation and has thus far had a complication-free recovery”.
“The operation has definitely improved the quality of life for Mr Thomas Prins and provided some hope and dignity to improve not only his own standard of living but also pave the way for those who also suffer from spinal injury,” the hospital group said.
Provincial Health MEC Theuns Botha told the Cape Argus he had written to the doctor before the procedure saying: “Although permission from my office is not needed in this specific situation, please remain cognizant that all activities relating to this procedure should remain within the confines of the National Health Act.”
Of the operation, he said: “It is possible that procedures of this nature could be of considerable value and have the potential to lead to a valuable breakthrough. With issues such as this and others I wish to position the Western Cape as a laboratory of new ideas.”