CLEVELAND - Doctors have implanted electrodes in Christopher Reeve's diaphragm in an experiment designed to enable the paralyzed actor to breathe on his own, hospital officials said Thursday.
Reeve, 50, who has been on a respirator since he broke his neck in a horseback riding accident eight years ago, can currently breathe for more than two hours without the respirator, compared with 10 minutes before the surgery.
As his diaphragm muscles get stronger, he is expected to be able to do away with the respirator and speak more normally, said Dr. Raymond Onders, who performed the operation.
Reeve scheduled a news conference later Thursday with doctors at University Hospitals of Cleveland to discuss the Feb. 28 procedure, hospital spokesman Eric Sandstrom said.
Reeve is the third person to undergo the surgery. The first, a 36-year-old man who was paralyzed in a swimming accident, has been breathing without assistance for two years, the hospital said.
The outpatient operation, called diaphragm pacing via laparoscopy, involves threading tiny wires through small incisions in the diaphragm. The wires connect a control box worn outside the body to electrodes on the diaphragm.
The control box sends a signal to the electrodes 12 times a minute, causing the diaphragm to contract and air to be sucked into the lungs. When the nerve is unstimulated, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is expelled.
"Diaphragm pacing unlocks a door to greater independence, one of the most important goals for all people living with disabilities," Reeve said in a news release.
According to University Hospitals, the alternative treatment for someone with Reeve's paralysis is a thoracotomy, in which doctors open the patient's chest to attach electrodes directly to the nerves that control breathing - a procedure that is both more expensive and risky.
The researchers estimated that out of 10,000 spinal cord injuries each year, about 1,000 patients require mechanical breathing assistance for some time and about 300 may require assistance for the rest of their lives.
Reeve's surgery was funded by a joint research project of the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Surgical Corp., which makes surgical devices, with the assistance of the Veterans Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
FDA spokeswoman Sharon Snider said the agency provided about $450,000 for research on the device. According to the hospital, the grant has funded testing on five patients, and researchers are seeking $2 million to $3 million more to test on an additional 35 patients.