Paralysis patient Roman Reed has never let go of the dream of walking again. He was paralyzed during a college football game in 1994 and he is now closely watching a new trial by Palo Alto's StemCells, Inc. Its aim is to restore motor function in patients with spinal cord injuries.
"Imagine being able to close your hand again, or to pick up your child, or to walk next to your wife, it's so important," said Reed.
The company is using adult stem cells taken from human brain tissue. Researchers believe those cells have the ability to regenerate a critical component of the body's neural pathways -- the myelin sheath. It helps carry high speed electrical signals between the brain and the spine. Co-founder of Palo Alto's StemCells, Inc. Irv Weissman, M.D., says pre-clinical trials have already produced compelling results.
"So when you put in these neurospheres -- groups of cells directly derived from human brain stem cells, from the adult brain tissue stem cells -- they migrate in, in the animal model above and below, and within weeks, not really very long, they remyelinate," said Weissman.
In a video, provided by StemCells, Inc., a mouse with a spinal cord injury is barely able move its back legs as it struggles itself forward. But after being treated with brain tissue stem cells, the same animal eventually regained its normal gate.
"So this is not just restoration of some functions that are minor, this is a major restoration of coordinated movement," said Weissman.
"The goal is to focus on placing the cells near the site of injury," said Stephen Huhn, M.D., from StemCells, Inc.
If the human trial follows the animal model, Huhn expects the implanted stem cells to differentiate into neurons and other components of the spine's communication system including the myelin sheath. Because these stem cells are derived from adult brain cells, he believes this will prevent them from turning cancerous.
"The tumor genetic risk from our cells is different than from the risk from embryonic cells and our cells have been thoroughly tested... so we feel very confident that is not an issue for an adult derived neuro stem cell," said Huhn.
The trial, which is being performed in Switzerland, is recruiting patients with different levels of impairment -- including some whose injuries are up to 1 year old. Potentially providing hope for patients like Reed whose injuries are decades old.
"This research is giving people like myself and in wheelchairs hope that one day we'll get out of wheelchairs and walk again," said Reed.
Although the first phase of the trial focuses on safety, researchers believe they may be able to detect signs within a matter of months, telling them whether the treatment is having an effect.
Written and produced by Tim Didion