The Keck Medical Center and the University of Southern California recently released news about a patient who participated in a clinical trial of stem cells for treatment of complete cervical spinal cord injury. Included was video of Kris Boesen, a former quadriplegic, lifting a barbell above his head.
Since I first wrote about this breakthrough, people have emailed me saying that stem cells couldn’t have caused Boesen’s improvement. They insisted that Boesen’s spinal cord couldn’t have been completely severed, and he must have recovered naturally.
This FDA-approved clinical trial required that only patients with catastrophic spinal cord injury could participate. It could have been possible that a single patient was misdiagnosed by the experienced and highly qualified clinical and surgical team.
Data have now been released about all eight trial participants with catastrophic spinal cord injury. And Boesen wasn’t an anomaly. In fact, his results weren’t even the most impressive.
All eight patients attained benefits that are both spectacular and historic.
The first three patients only received the same small number of stem cells used in earlier mouse studies. Yet they also showed mprovement.
The other five quadriplegics received half the therapeutic dose. They gained enough upper body movement to care for themselves in just three months. (The trial’s FDA guidelines allow twelve months.)
This kind of recovery just doesn’t happen. My cousin’s husband, for example, suffered this sort of spinal cord damage decades ago due to an off-road vehicle accident. Today, he can barely move his arms while floating in a swimming pool.
We don’t yet know if larger doses given to patients soon after their injuries will lead to full sensation and movement in the lower body. We hope so, of course, but this therapy is already a breakthrough. If it can turn quadriplegics into paraplegics, it borders on miraculous.
Quadriplegics need full, constant care for their entire lives. This impacts their personal lives in ways that are hard to contemplate. It also imposes millions of dollars in care and medical costs per patient.
Paraplegics, on the other hand, can take care of themselves and work productive jobs.
Participants in this trial who received only half the therapeutic dose can now text and feed themselves.
So what does it mean?
Clearly, this will be transformational for people suffering with spinal cord injuries. About 15,000 spinal cord injuries occur annually in the United States alone. Those who have less catastrophic injuries may respond to stem cell treatment even better.
Though markets don’t seem to have processed that fact, this breakthrough will change medicine as we know it. The larger implication is that the field of embryonic or pluripotent stem medicine will finally overcome the skepticism and controversy that have plagued it for over twenty years.
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