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Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - A 25-year-old Los Angeles man paralyzed from the waist down after being hit by a car in 2006 has regained the ability to stand, take steps on a treadmill and move his hips, knees, ankles and toes as a result of an experimental treatment developed at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Louisville.

Rob Summers has also regained some bladder and sexual function after intensive rehabilitation and two years of electrical stimulation to his damaged spinal cord with a device normally used for pain relief, researchers reported Thursday.

His recovery "remains unprecedented in spinal-cord injury patients," who until now have faced a lifetime of paralysis, researchers from the University of Zurich wrote in an editorial accompanying the report in the journal Lancet. "We are entering a new era when the time has come for spinal-cord-injured patients to move."

The new treatment is "a very exciting discovery" that can probably be used to help 10 percent to 15 percent of people with spinal-cord injuries regain some use of their legs, added Dr. John McDonald, director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. For those people, "It has the potential to make a dramatic difference in their lives."

To achieve this milestone, researchers bathed Summers' spinal cord with a mild dose of electricity using a device that is normally used to treat chronic pain. The electrical stimulation apparently primed his nervous system to respond to signals from his limbs.

"To everyone's disbelief, I was able to stand independently the third day we turned it on," said Summers, who was a junior at Oregon State University at the time of his accident. He completely supported himself, but needed some help with balance.

The treatment, devised primarily by UCLA neurobiologist V. Reggie Edgerton, is designed to activate a patient's spinal nerves just enough to make them responsive to sensory signals coming from the legs. The approach, which Edgerton has been proving in animals for nearly three decades, is like using a hearing aid to amplify sound.

The technique "opens up a whole new set of possibilities ... for people who have been injured for months or years," said Dr. Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville, the study's co-author.