“Arise, take up thy bed,” Christ commanded a paralyzed man, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The man “arose and departed.” Healing a paralytic is miraculous… But it may soon become an everyday miracle of science, rather than a rare miracle of faith.
In April 2011, the Washington Post reported that the first patient to receive a human embryonic stem-cell treatment for paralysis from a spinal-cord injury had regained some feeling in his legs.
Timothy Atchinson, a 21-year-old nursing student in Alabama, was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident in September 2010. He quickly accepted an offer to be the initial participant in the world’s first clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells. Now after months of not feeling or not being able to move his body below his chest, Atchison claimed he had begun to get some very slight sensation: He could feel relief when he lifted a bowling ball off his lap and discern discomfort when he pulled on hairs on some parts of his legs. He had also strengthened his abdomen.
This miraculous medical breakthrough was fascinating to me, not simply because the story itself is amazing, but also because I witnessed the genesis of the research that made it possible.
The treatment emerged from the laboratory of Hans Keirstead, a neurobiologist with the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine. While Dr. Keirstead was busy making his groundbreaking discovery in his lab, I was conducting a completely different sort of stem cell research in a nearby lab at UCI.
UCI has a robust stem cell research program that has received more than $52 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. A four-story building dedicated to stem cell research broke ground in 2010. It houses the stem cell center, dozens of laboratory-based and clinical researchers, a stem cell techniques course, a master’s program in biotechnology with an emphasis on stem cell research, and programs and activities for patients and public education.
Neurobiologist Hans Keirstead was very well-known and respected at UCI, even before his groundbreaking research project. He had been trying for years to find a way to use human embryonic stem cells to restore movement in people who have suffered spinal injuries. In 2005, he published a cutting-edge report in the Journal of Neuroscience entitled “Human embryonic stem cell-derived oligodendrocyte progenitor cell transplants remyelinate and restore locomotion after spinal cord injury.”
In other words, he enabled paralyzed rats to walk again.
The therapy he developed utilizes embryonic stem cells destined to become spinal cord cells called oligodendrocytes. These are the building blocks of myelin, the biological insulation for nerve fibers that is critical for maintaining electrical conduction in the central nervous system. When myelin is stripped away, through injury or disease, paralysis can occur.
The study showed that a week after test rats with 100 percent walking ability suffered neck spinal cord injuries, some received the stem cell treatment. The walking ability of those that didn’t get the treatment degraded to 38 percent. The walking ability of the treated rats, however, was restored to 97 percent.
When I started to work at UCI, two years after Keirstead published his initial findings, his research had advanced significantly. He had shown, for example, that the therapy using human embryonic stem cells was not harmful to the rats, and he was reviewing the practical considerations and risks that must be addressed before human treatments could begin.
By the summer of 2010, the FDA approved the Embryonic Stem Cell-Based Therapy For Patients With Acute Spinal Cord Injury. This trial started in Oct 2010…
… And so did the controversy.
Most of us at UCI were intrigued by Keirstead’s research…especially when it progressed from rats to humans. At that moment, the buzz among us was, “They’re going to try it on humans! Can you believe it?” But in the broader scientific community, many folks were dubious and dismissive, if not completely alarmed.
Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and a defender of stem-cell therapies famously bashed the trial saying that it was poorly designed. “This is nuts and hugely risky,” says Caplan. “The animal studies are not adequate to justify the trial. Those studies provide too little proof of safety and Keirstead’s original findings in rats offer thin evidence that people will be helped.”
One year into trial, however, none of the 10 patients have experienced any adverse reactions from the treatment, although a few “mild” adverse reactions were reported from a drug used to suppress the patients’ immune responses.
Keirstead has said the initial reports from the paralyzed Timothy Atchinson are exciting, but anecdotal and not scientifically verified. The formal outcome of this trial won’t be known until two years after the last of the ten patients receives the therapy.
Meanwhile, other trials are ongoing using adult-induced pluripotent stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries, rather than embryonic stem cells. No matter the ultimate results of these particular stem cell trials, stem cell therapies are on the threshold of making truly miraculous cures an everyday event.
Severine Kirchner, PhD,
for The Daily Reckoning