Craig Hospital to launch experimental spine therapy

Published: March 18, 2003
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An experimental therapy that has shown promise for people with spinal cord injuries will soon be available in the metro area. The process, called activated macrophage, has previously only been performed in Israel. That’s where two young people from Colorado received it in an early test involving only 11 subjects. But Craig Hospital in Englewood is waiting for final approval from the Food and Drug Administration to bring activated macrophage to North America. It would be available to about 170 patients. Macrophage involves the isolation of white blood cells from bone marrow. They’re combined with a graft of the patient’s skin to activate the white blood cells’ healing properties. The cells are then injected into the damaged area of the spinal cord within two weeks of injury. Patients who have benefited from the treatment have regained some feeling and use of their legs.

Eric Coffman, a 21-year-old from Littleton, was injured two years ago while snowboarding at St. Mary’s Glacier. He was paralyzed from the chest down after catching an edge and tumbling 400 feet hrough a steep field of boulders. He was flown to Tel Aviv for the macrophage treatment. I was the fourth person ever to have it done, and the first three people actually made some progress,” he said. There was no improvement in his case. Melissa Holly was 19 in 2000 when she was paralyzed in a car accident. Since she underwent the medical procedure, the Ridgway resident has regained more feeling and movement than anyone else treated so far. “Less than 10 percent would progress this far so, yes, she’s beaten the odds,” said Dr. Mark Johansen, who treated her at Craig Hospital upon her return from Israel.

Doctors at Craig call Holly and Coffman pioneers. They braved long, painful trips to an unstable part of the world to be among the first to be part of the research trial. “If being a guinea pig is something that I can do to help further spinal cord research, then that’s fine with me,” Coffman said. Craig Hospital president Dennis O’Malley called activated macrophage an “important piece in the puzzle, or at least it has that potential, because we’ve seen some pretty impressive results in a small clinical trial.”

Of the 11 patients treated in Tel Aviv, approximately a third experienced significant improvement in sensation, movement and bladder control. “Even if it never goes beyond a third of the people, that’s still a big chunk of people who might get more recovery, more improvement, and have a more independent life as a result of this therapy,” he said. Coffman, even though he has not regained any feeling or movement, says he has no regrets. “I just think it’s important to keep building on the research that there is. The more information, the more research that’s done, eventually they will make progress and hopefully find a way to fix this,” said Coffman, a junior at the Colorado School of Mines who was preparing for mechanical engineering finals.

He said he dreams of snowboarding again some day, hoping advances in research he helped to pioneer will help make it happen. “To go from college athlete to being in a wheelchair, you know, it drives me crazy, really,” he said.

By Cheryl Preheim
Denver Post
March 18, 2003