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An experimental drug appears effective in reducing paralysis among people who suffer severe spinal cord injuries, researchers said.

The drug, known as GM-1, is the second treatment in just over a year to show promise for reducing the severity of devastating spinal cord injuries, which affect 10,000 Americans annually and cost $4 billion a year.In a small pilot study, seven of 16 people who were given GM-1 improved from near total paralysis to being able to walk after one year, compared to only one of 18 patients given a worthless dummy drug, said Dr. Fred Geisler of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

The promise shown by GM-1 and a widely publicized steroid drug called methylprednisolone represents "a major step forward, not because the paralysis of these patients has been cured, but because for the first time, we have drugs that can effect their outcomes," he said.

Because GM-1 and methylprednisolone are administered within different time periods following a spinal cord injury and have different modes of action, it is possible the two could be given in tandem, said Geisler, co-author of the study which appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine.

He warned, however, that because the GM-1 research is in a preliminary stage and a planned nationwide study will take several years to complete, the drug should not be regarded as a potential panacea.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Michael Walker of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke said research on GM-1 and methylprednisolone has important implications, both for patients and for efforts to understand spinal cord injuries.