Olfactory mucosa, the sense organ of smell, is an adult tissue that is regenerated and repaired throughout life to maintain the integrity of the sense of smell. When the sensory neurons of the olfactory epithelium die they are replaced by proliferation of stem cells and their axons grow from the nose to brain assisted by olfactory ensheathing cells located in the lamina propria beneath the sensory epithelium. When transplanted into the site of traumatic spinal cord injury in rat, olfactory lamina propria or purified olfactory ensheathing cells promote behavioural recovery and assist regrowth of some nerves in the spinal cord. A Phase I clinical trial demonstrated that autologous olfactory ensheathing cell transplantation is safe, with no adverse outcomes recorded for three years following transplantation. Autologous olfactory mucosa transplantation is also being investigated in traumatic spinal cord injury although this whole tissue contains many cells in addition to olfactory ensheathing cells, including stem cells. If olfactory ensheathing cells are proven therapeutic for human spinal cord injury there are several important practical issues that will need to be solved before they reach general clinical application. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Understanding olfactory ensheathing glia and their prospect for nervous system repair.
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