Paralyzed from the torso down, Katie Sharify heads home from Santa Clara Valley Medical Center on Wednesday, daring to hope that the 2 million stem cells creeping up her damaged spine will help her walk again.
The 23-year-old from Pleasanton is one of only five spinal cord patients in the country who received an experimental dose of stem cells the late “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve could only dream about. She may also be the last.
The same week Sharify received the injection in mid-November, the clinical trial was halted by Menlo Park-based Geron, leaving the future of the groundbreaking research in jeopardy. Geron has said it is looking for another company to pick up where it left off, but nothing appears certain.
“My goal is to walk,” said Sharify, who has use of her arms but needed her mother’s help to put on a stylish lace dress and boots for her interview. “It still is. I have hope. I have drive.”
Sharify isn’t famous like the late actor, who was paralyzed after falling from a horse. She is a bright, young waitress, a 2006 graduate of Amador Valley High School who was saving money to re-enroll at the University of Southern California when she crashed and rolled her car while driving down Interstate 5 near Los Banos after a visit home.
But on Tuesday, ready to go home after nearly six weeks in the hospital, she became an advocate.
“I want someone somewhere to see me,” Sharify said. “Maybe there’s a head of a big company who sees this and says, ‘We should help this girl.’ ”
The primary purpose of the first clinical trial was to determine whether the injection of embryonic stem cells was safe with minimal side effects. But Dr. James Crew, who is managing Sharify’s care at Valley Medical Center, said he is anxiously looking for signs that the stem cells are restoring any sensation, any function.
So far, Sharify said that since her surgery in mid-November she has regained feeling in her upper chest and can feel when someone applies pressure on her back. Both she and Crew said it’s hard to tell at this point whether the stem cells had anything to do with it.
“If I knew as her doctor there was no hope of this working for her, I would not have discussed this treatment with her,” Crew said. “I wanted whatever opportunity is out there to be explored. I wanted her to have the opportunity.”
Sharify knows it’s a long shot — 80 percent of spinal injuries don’t improve — but she won’t waver. She wants the stem cells to increase her chances so she’ll be in the 20 percent.
Sharify is the second patient at Valley Medical Center to be injected with the stem cells, the fifth in the nation. Sharify’s interview was rare. Only one other patient, a 21-year-old football player treated at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, has spoken publicly.
At Valley Medical Center on Nov. 16, physicians Gary Steinberg from Stanford and Marco Lee from Valley Medical implanted the stem cells into Sharify’s back. The idea is that the stem cells, taken from leftover in vitro fertilization embryos, will restore a sheath around the damaged spinal cord to allow electric signals to transmit and trigger muscle movement.
The federal Food and Drug Administration granted approval for the clinical trials last year.
Although Geron has backed out of the study, it remains committed to monitoring the progress of Sharify and the four other patients until someone else takes over.
Sharify is confident someone will.
Trials for spinal injuries are under way in Europe. Sharify’s ordeal has made her more positive than ever — and given her something that eluded her for years: passion for something important.
Before her crash, she waffled on what to study in college. She switched from economics to communications, without a clear direction of a career. Her “passion” until then, she said, was “dressing up and going out.”
Now, though, she wants to focus on stem cell research — something she hopes will not only help her, but others, as well. She wants to go back to school and get a job in the stem cell field.
“Sure, the momentum is lost,” she said, “but not all hope is lost.”
Julia Prodis Sulek