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Innovative boot camp aims to help cure paralysis


Aug. 19, 2013
By Carley Dangona

carley@thereminder.com

SOUTHWICK – Resident Marita Niquette will participate in an innovative boot camp with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to increase her chance to walk again one day.

Niquette, 47, has been in a wheelchair since 1985 after suffering a spinal cord injury (SCI) during an automobile crash. The study will take place from Aug. 26 to Dec. 13, with another week of treatment in January. Chronic SCI patients will participate in a physical therapy program to increase the functionality of atrophied muscles to make the candidates eligible for Schwann cell transplantation.

“I’m not feeling nervous about it or anything. I’m excited to go do it,” Niquette said, adding that her husband of 20 years, Michael, told her that she would regret not participating. She said she received a call in the fall of 2012 to join the program. The Miami Project found her contact information in a database of people interested in taking part in research studies.

She explained that the sessions would last two to three hours a day and would include strength training, locomotor training – a device that places wheelchair-bound people upright and enables them to walk – and Functional Electrical Stimulation bike training, a device that uses electrical currents to stimulate nerve cells.

The trial description states, “The results will enable us to define the minimum amount of exercise and rehabilitation needed to bring individuals with chronic, complete thoracic SCI to a ‘level playing field’ and understand how this influences global function, neuromuscular physiology, spasticity, sensation, pain, autonomic function and mobility.”

The project’s website, www.themiamiproject.org, describes the Autologous Schwann Cells for acute and chronic spinal cord injury program. It states, “One of the Miami Project’s most anticipated clinical trials involves the testing of autologous Schwann cell transplants in humans with acute and chronic SCI. The first step, generating all of the preclinical safety and efficacy data to justify the testing of Schwann cell transplantation in humans, has been completed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved our Investigational New Drug application to allow us to begin a Phase I clinical trial to evaluate the safety of autologous human Schwann cell transplantation a few weeks after a spinal cord injury has occurred.”

It continued, “This first trial will purely test safety, because we have to do surgery on people and actually stick a needle into their spinal cord injury site in order to put their Schwann cells inside. It will only involve about eight people and they will all be new injuries.

“The main reason we are doing new injuries first is because we have more animal data in that setting and it allows us to seek FDA approval faster. Obtaining faster FDA approval means going into people faster; this means finding out about safety faster. As soon as we know it is safe to inject, we can then request approval to start additional trials such as expanding into chronic injuries, incomplete injuries, and even combination therapies. We are continuing to generate animal data in the chronic injury setting to be used for future trials in people with chronic injury.

“So think of this as our building block to developing the most effective treatments for people living with SCI. The best way to get access to these treatments fastest is to keep yourself healthy and in very good condition so that you qualify for clinical trials as they become available and for which you qualify.”

Niquette, who works in the Benefits Account Consulting department at MassMutual, credited her employer for the opportunity to join the clinical. During the study, she will work remotely from Miami, Fla., maintaining a full-time schedule. She added that without this allowance, she would not have been able to take part in the trial.

She said that she never hesitated to go on with her life after her accident and while she hoped this type of medical breakthrough would become a reality some day, she never dwelled on the possibility.

“My first thought after the accident was I need to get better and leave the hospital,” Niquette said. “When you get injured, it might be hard in the beginning, but you need to forge ahead because you can still have a full life.”

Niquette started driving again mere months after her accident. She returned to college less than a year after the incident. Now, she even goes snowmobiling with her family during their vacations in Maine, although she insisted that she never races.

A graduate of Western New England University and a former field hockey player, Niquette credited the fact that she was in shape as a contributing factor to the success of her recovery. “I was already in phenomenal shape,” she said.

Since then, she has stayed in shape by eating healthy, but said she doesn’t work out regularly. She noted it was a requirement that participants not be on a regular workout schedule to assess the benefits of the treatment.

When asked to describe herself, Niquette said, “I’m well adjusted and a go getter. I like to learn and do new things. I like to keep busy – I don’t really like to sit around at all.”

As for the future, some day she would like to retire and travel more, but not too soon. “I like to work,” Niquette said.

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