UofL Scientist Says Embryonic Stem Cells Key To Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Published: July 31, 2005  |  Source: kscirc.org
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(LOUISVILLE) — Days after Senate Majority Leader Bill First’s pledge to support federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells, scientists at the University of Louisville announced a breakthrough in treating spinal cord injuries that may rely on embryonic stem cells to make it work. WAVE 3 Medical Reporter Lori Lyle has more.

David Allgood
David Allgood
At 39, David Allgood has been living for years with a spinal cord injury that has left him partially paralyzed. “I’m a quadriplegic,” he says. “I have no use of my legs, limited use of my arms and really no good use of fingers or dexterity.”

It happened 23 years ago when Allgood was in a car crash. “When you’re 16 years old, you don’t expect to be going around the rest of your life using a wheelchair.”

But now Allgood is becoming more hopeful that the rest of his life may not include that wheelchair.

UofL scientist Scott Whittemore and his research team are using stem cells and gene therapy to repair spinal cord injuries in lab animals. “It’s the most significant piece of work that I’ve done in science thus far,” Whittemore says.

What Whittemore has been doing is repairing damaged Myelin, the protective coating around nerve fibers that are damaged when the spinal cord and its nerves are injured.

“Think of it as insulation around the wire,” Whittemore says. “What it allows the nerves to do is to conduct their impulses.”

Other scientists are using similar approaches, but Whittemore says until now “nobody had been able to show that the Functional recovery you see is because of re-myelination.”

While the procedure has only been performed on animals thus far, human trials may be just two years away. And although there is research on how to do this with adult stem cells right now, embryonic stem cells seem to hold the most hope.

“The most promising cell for this type of approach would be embryonic stem cells. We can take an embryonic stem cell and make it behave just like cells we used indistinguishably.”

Last week, Republican Senator Bill First — a physician in private life — made a surprising move when he suggested the need for more federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

And Whittemore is thrilled with the timing, saying it’s time our leaders — whether liberal or conservative — “recognize this is promising therapy.”

It’s a promise David Allgood is allowing himself to believe in one step at a time. “Walking would be wonderful,” he says, but quickly adds that he would settle for “the use of my hands. It’d be fantastic.”

The National Institutes of Health is renewing its commitment to the research, awarding UofL another $10.4 million.

Whittemore’s group is one of only a handful in the country with embryonic stem cells that are federally approved for research right now. They will use those next in the study.

By Lori Lyle
Online Reporter: Lori Lyle
Online Producer: Michael Dever