First embryonic stem-cell treatment for spinal cord injuries

This is the first time embryonic stem-cell treatments have been approved by the government. End of pills and a new beginning for stem cell treatments?
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

It's official. The first patient signed up for Geron Corporation's stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries.

This is the first time embryonic stem-cell treatment is being injected into a patient.

The Food and Drug Administration gave the company the okay for a clinical trial, after tests showed that stem cell therapy helped lab rats walk again.

The patient came to the Shepherd Center, a 132-bed spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta to enroll in the company's clinical trial of human embryonic stem cell (hESC)-derived oligodendrocyte progenitor cells.

Eventually, the hope is to use embryonic stem-cell therapy to cure paralysis in people with spinal cord injuries.

Note: To enroll in the study, patients must have American Spinal Injury Associate Impairment Scale grade A thoracic spinal cord injuries. And the patients must receive the therapy within 14 days of the injury. Seven centers around the country will take about eight to ten more patients.

"Initiating the GRNOPC1 clinical trial is a milestone for the field of human embryonic stem cell-based therapies," Thomas B. Okarma, Geron's president and CEO, said in a statement. "When we started working with hESCs in 1999, many predicted that it would be a number of decades before a cell therapy would be approved for human clinical trials."

Okarma told ABC News that pills will go away as we start to use stem cells to treat disease and restore damaged organs.

That seems a little premature, don't you think? It is.

Okarma knows the trial is limited in scope. The company can only take one patient a month and it will take at least six months to see if the therapy is helping at all.

Either way, there seems to be a lot riding on this Phase I clinical trial. If successful, it will be important because it would show that it is safe to use stem cells this way. If it's not, then it could derail stem cell therapy for a while.

Of course, the fact that this company is using embryonic stem cells has added fuel to the fire of this already heated subject of using embryonic stem-cells.

If successful in treating spinal cord injuries, researchers think similar therapies can be used to treat Parkinson's disease, ALS, and diabetes to name a few.

There are other alternative treatments that are more cyborg-like in nature. As I mentioned before, scientists are trying to hook up artificial limbs to the brain. That way, living tissue would be wired to a computer system that would be hooked up to the human nervous system through sensors built into the fiber.

“Enhancing human performance with modern digital technologies is one of the great frontiers in engineering,” Southern Methodist University engineer Marc Christensen said in a statement. “Providing this kind of port to the nervous system will enable not only realistic prosthetic limbs, but also can be applied to treat spinal cord injuries and an array of neurological disorders.”

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