Meet Cecilia Villarruel, patient #1 in the world’s largest clinical trial focused on upper limb (gripping) recovery using spinal neuromodulation treatment for people living with chronic quadriplegia.
Cecilia Villarruel, a Physician Assistant, was left paralyzed from the neck down (C6/7) from an automobile accident. Thirteen years after her injury, Cecilia and seven other patients began receiving non-invasive transcutaneous spinal neuromodulation treatment at UCLA. Before treatment, she could not move her fingers. After the first eight treatment sessions, she could do things she had not been able to do since her injury. In addition to regaining use of fingers, she and the other patients reported improved blood pressure, bladder function, cardiovascular function and the ability to sit upright without support
Cecilia’s parents are fitness enthusiasts and as a child encouraged her love of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, swimming and riding ATVs. Her love for nature and fitness along with a childhood illness suffered by her younger brother led her to study biology at UC Berkeley with the goal of a career in medicine. She was working diligently towards this goal when she was a passenger in a car that rolled over. The accident caused a spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis.
How she got into the first clinical trial
“I started my first clinical trial with Reggie Edgerton and Parag Gad a few years ago (2017). That was my first experience with spinal neuromodulation. That first treatment included approximately 12 sessions, and after the first few I noticed that my hand gripping function had already improved a lot. I could grab and open a water bottle. I could grab and turn a doorknob much easier even with my left hand, which is the weaker hand.
“Most people with a spinal cord injury say they just want to go to the bathroom like a normal person again,” she said. “Small accomplishments like opening jars, bottles and doors enable a level of independence and self-reliance that have a profound effect on people’s lives.”
Following her injury from the car accident, Cecilia took several years to rehabilitate and adjust to her new reality before returning to UC Berkeley to complete her degree. She went on to earn a Master’s degree and now used her education and training to work as a Physician Assistant in an out-patient neurology clinic helping others.
Results she achieved in her first clinical trial
From that first study, I was able to enroll in a series of additional studies focused on trunk function, standing function, and even a longer-term walking study that lasted almost a year. All of the studies used spinal neuromodulation treatment with transcutaneous stimulation. Every treatment study resulted in improvement in the targeted function, achieving the goal for recovery.
“These research studies are so important for people like me living with paralysis to improve function in ways that lead to improved quality of life.
Why she believes this new clinical trial is so important
“From my experience as a patient who has received the treatment, I really believe that spinal neuromodulation is the future of paralysis recovery treatment. It allows the body to use all of the (spinal nerve) connection that remain. The exercise and the spinal stimulation allow us to improve motor (muscle) function more so than any other therapy that is available. I recommend this treatment for anyone living with paralysis who is able to participate.
“I know the goal of this research is to allow these new devices to be used at home for treatment so that we can incorporate them into our daily living,” she said.
“We don’t really know the full potential of this treatment, but in my experience over multiple rounds of clinical research with the treatment, the more it is used the greater the recovery. Everyone that I have spoken to who has received this treatment in a clinical trial has had different experiences, but everyone has had some positive improvement.”
“I once joked with (research director) Parag that I was going to steal a device from the lab to bring it home and he would never hear from me again. I really do believe that once we can use this treatment at home every day, we will truly realize the full potential of this treatment. For me, the more I use it the better the results.
What Cecilia is doing now
In November 2020, Cecilia enrolled in a new clinical trial at Edgerton Labs focused on gripping function recovery in the hands and arms using spinal neuromodulation treatment for patients living with chronic quadriplegia. Cecilia is the first patient in the study to receive therapeutic treatment. This new clinical, the of this kind in the world, will ultimately enroll 24 patients. Reports on her continuing recovery progress will be shared in the second quarter of 2021.