Quadriplegic man travels to China for stem cell research

Published: November 12, 2004

By Kevin Otzenberger – Times-News correspondent

BLISS — A 31-year-old Bliss man will travel to China in January to undergo an experimental treatment that might help him move the fingers that haven’t moved since an accident 14 years ago.

Pruett was 17 when he broke his neck and severed his spinal cord in a car accident, leaving him a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair. Today, he will be the first person from Idaho and one of the first Americans to travel to Beijing, China, to take part in a stem cell research project.

“The good thing about living in a small community is the support you get from everybody,” Pruett said Thursday. “I haven’t gotten any hate mail yet.”

In fact, his family and friends are sponsoring a benefit Saturday to help fund the trip to Beijing.

“Chris didn’t give up on us, and we’re not giving up on him,” said Pruett’s father Jimmy.

After the accident, Pruett finished his senior year at Bliss High School and went on to earn a degree in business from Boise State University. He now works as a broker for Clearwater Mortgage and despite his inability to walk and having just minimal function of his hands, still spends his weekends fishing, hunting, tubing down the Snake River, even skydiving.

He’s hoping the treatment will give him the ability to do even more.

“I realistically believe that this surgery can give me back the use of my hands,” Pruett said.

In the procedure, the physician takes cells from the nerve center of the olfactory bulb in the nose of fetal tissue and injects about 500,000 cells above and another 500,000 cells below the location of the spinal injury.

“We’ve been saying stem cells because people can wrap their minds around it the easiest, Pruett said. “You can get stem cells from the olfactory bulb, separate the cells out one way, you get stem cells. Separate those out the other way and you get what they will inject into my spine. They’re called OET cells.”

Pruett will be leaving for China Jan. 3 and will return Feb. 1. The surgery will take place about a week after his arrival after doctors conduct tests to match blood types and culture the cells. The trip and surgery will cost between $20,000 and $25,000. Pruett’s mother, Sherry Pruett, will accompany her son on the trip as his health-care provider.

“This could open up a world of opportunity for him,” Sherry Pruett said. “There are still a lot of things that we have to do for him, and if this works, he can be totally independent.”

It will be an adventure for both mother and son.

“My travel radius is like 400 to 500 miles from home, so this is going to be quite a culture shock for us, I think,” Sherry Pruett said.

Several years ago, Pruett contacted a doctor in Portugal, but was rejected from that program because his injury had already occurred more than five years earlier. Pruett started doing some research online and found a doctor named Hung Young Huang in Beijing. Huang got back with Pruett last Thanksgiving and has since been collecting test results to prepare Pruett for the procedure.

“In China, their attitude is that it’s cheaper to do the surgery than to support them for however long they live. It’s just a fact of their economy. As far as politics, abortion was a national law for years, so they’re not opposed to this sort of thing.”

Dr. Huang has worked extensively with a variety of spinal injury patients, some who had been injured 30 years before and others who had as many as three separate injuries. Huang has also done research on ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Another doctor Pruett plans to meet in China is Wise Young, one of the leading researchers in spinal cord injuries. Young recently appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” following the death of the actor and director Christopher Reeve, who had been paralyzed in a fall from a horse in 1995 and became a tireless advocate for people suffering from injuries and illnesses of the Central Nervous System.

“Chris Reeve dealt the hand he was given,” Pruett said. “I think he made a lot of people aware of the problem, but I don’t know how much of a difference it made since there still is nothing happening in the United States.”

Pruett said there’s no federal funding for stem cell research, but California recently passed a bill to give it state funding, $1 billion over three years.

“If the federal government lifted the ban on stem cell research tomorrow, and we put the cells in front of a scientist right then, any treatment on humans would still be 15 years away” Pruett said. “That’s how slow our medical system is working.”

Fund-raiser to help Bliss man
Chris Pruett’s family and friends will sponsor a Basque dinner and auction Saturday to help pay to send Chris and his mother, Sherry to Beijing, China, where Chris, a quadriplegic, will receive an experimental medical treatment. The evening will begin at 5 p.m. at the Bliss Fire Station on Highway 30 in Bliss. Dinner will be $10 per person or $35 for a family of four. Children under 5 years old eat for $2. Donations can be sent to the Gooding Pioneer Federal Credit Union, and checks must be made payable to the Bliss Quick Response Unit.