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Stem Cells For Spinal Cord Injuries

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Doctor Experimenting WIth Stem Cells To Help Those Who Are Paralyzed

Nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. are living with a spinal cord injury. Every year 12,000 people are told they’ll never walk again after an accident. What if one injection of stem cells could pump new movement and new hope into a paralyzed body? A scientist who’s spent the past decade in the lab looking for a cure said a new treatment is within reach. If he’s right, it could revolutionize the treatment of spinal cord injuries.

“I was just playing beach volleyball and I ran into the ocean for a swim to cool off, dove into a wave and hit a sandbar and was instantly paralyzed,” said Janne Kouri, a spinal cord injury patient.

What started out as a day on the beach ended up changing the future of the 31-year-old

In a University of California, Irvine lab not far away from where Kouri’s accident happened, researcher Hans Keirstead said he may hold the key to helping spinal cord injury patients re-gain movement.

“This treatment, I designed for individuals within two weeks of their injury, so it’s a scary thought that those individuals that will receive this trial haven’t even been injured yet,” said Keirstead.

Keirstead took human embryonic stem cells and coaxed them into becoming spinal cord cells, then he injected the concoction into rats. The new cells traveled to the damaged spinal cord and wrapped themselves around the nerves, restoring function. In six weeks, the previously paralyzed rats walked. Keirstead said human trials could start later this year. About 10 patients will get an injection of cells directly into their spinal cords. The hope is to see small movements with three months.

“This is going to be an incremental advance,” said Keirstead.

Since this is the first trial of its kind, there are still a lot of unknowns. Will the stem cells work as well in people as in animals? Will there be side effects?

“One day there will be a cure,” said Kouri.

Kouri is too late for this trial, but could be a candidate for Keirstead’s next experiment, using stem cells to help those who’ve been injured years ago.

“Once they figure out a solution, we want to be in the best possible shape you can be in,” said Kouri.

Some critics said they believe Keirstead is pushing this treatment on people too quickly, but when it does enter human trials, it will be regulated by the FDA.

Keirstead said he realizes there’s a chance it won’t work. Two-thirds of new treatments never make it out of the second phase of testing.

FIRST IN THE FIELD: Nothing motivates Keirstead more than the pleas from the paralyzed community.

“The patient community screams, ‘Please develop treatments. We want them now. Choose me, not the rat,'” said Keirstead.

In his lab at the University of California, Irvine, Keirstead is making strides in developing a treatment for spinal cord injuries.

Keirstead, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at UC Irvine, developed a very high purity concoction of stem cells made from human embryonic stem cells and injected the mixture into the spines of paralyzed rats. The new cells he created traveled throughout the spinal cord area and wrapped themselves around nerves, enabling signals to once again flow through the body. In six weeks, the once paralyzed animals walked.

“My lab was the first lab in the world to take stem cells that can make any cell in the body and trick them to become one thing only: a high purity population of one particular spinal cord cell type,” said Keirstead “That’s important for human application: You can’t put toenails in the spinal cord.”

Later this year, Keirstead hopes to start human trials. The experiment, which would be regulated by the FDA, will involve about 10 spinal cord injury patients. They will be people who have suffered an injury within the past two weeks. Doctors will inject the high purity stem cell directly into the spine, and the hope is that the patients will show subtle movements within three months.

“It would be wonderful for these patients to get out of their wheelchairs and play soccer, but we do not, let me be clear, we do not expect that to happen with this treatment,” said Keirstead. “This is going to be an incremental advance.”

Scientists don’t yet know if embryonic stem cells will integrate and function in the body as well as they did in animals. There’s also a fear of side effects, including the stem cells possibly forming abnormal cells or tumors. However, there is currently no other treatment to help SCI patients, and Keirstead said he believes this could be a huge step in helping these patients regain some movement.

“An incremental benefit is a huge deal for someone in a wheelchair,” said Keirstead. “The ability to take the thumb muscle and move it if one can’t move it is tremendous.”

Keirstead is overseeing several other experiments involving stem cells in his lab. Within the next one to two years, he hopes to start trials for people who suffered spinal cord injuries years ago. He’s also working on a stem cell experiment to help babies with spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA, the number one genetic killer of infants.

BACKGROUND: National statistics show 12,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury (SCI) every year, and currently about 300,000 people are living with SCI. SCI primarily affects young adult men. Currently, more than 80 percent of spinal cord injuries occur among men. Experts hypothesize that men are more likely to engage in risky behavior that results in injury. Since 2005, car crashes account for more than 40 percent of SCI cases. The next most common cause is falls, followed by acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds) and recreational sporting activities.

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