Landmark stem cell trial to treat spinal injuries

A LANDMARK American trial taking the first step towards treating spinal injury patients with human embryonic stem cells has been described as the start of a new age in medicine.

The paralysed patient, who has a severe spinal cord injury, will be treated with special cells that stimulate nerve growth.

To be eligible, participating patients must have a “complete grade A” thoracic spinal injury sustained not more than 14 days before receiving the treatment, known as GRNOPC1.

Oligodendrocyte progenitor cells are grown in the laboratory from stem cells obtained from early-stage discarded human embryos.

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have an inherent ability to develop into virtually any kind of human tissue. Previous studies have shown that injecting the progenitor cells into animals with acute spinal cord injuries can restore some degree of motor function.

Geron Corporation has the first US licence to use the controversial cells to treat people, in this case patients with new spinal cord injuries. It is the first publicly known use of human embryonic stem cells in people.

“The patient was enrolled at Shepherd Centre, a 132-bed spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation hospital and clinical research centre in Atlanta, Georgia,” Geron said.

Several other centres in the US are expected to contribute patients for the trial.

Geron’s stem cells come from human embryos left over from fertility treatments. They have been manipulated so that they have become precursors to certain types of nerve cells.

The hope is that they will travel to the site of a recent spinal cord injury and release compounds that will help the damaged nerves in the cord regenerate.

The Phase I trial will not be aiming to cure patients, but to establish that the cells are safe to use. Under the guidelines of the trial, the patients must have very recent injuries.

Geron said the Shepherd Centre would keep details of the patient confidential.

The US government is embroiled in a legal battle over the cells. Just weeks after he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that eased limitations on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

Opponents of their use say it is wrong to use a human embryo to make the cells, and two researchers have sued the National Institutes of Health. A federal appeals court has allowed continued federal funding of the work until the case is heard.

Stem cells are the master cells of the body, giving rise to blood cells and tissue. Those taken from days-old embryos are the most powerful of all, giving rise to every tissue and cell type.

While scientists have hoped that stem cells could transform medicine, providing cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and juvenile diabetes, the reality has been that they are difficult to work with and do not easily grow into new tissues.


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