Alabama man first to receive stem cell therapy

June 2, 2011 5:31:14 PM PDT
A man from Alabama has become the first person in the United States to receive a highly-debated embryonic stem cell transplant. Researchers are hoping the technology will be a game changer for those with debilitating spinal cord injuries.

TJ Atchinson hopes he's living the dream of Superman Christopher Reeve -- to become the first human to receive embryonic stem cell therapy.

Atchinson was paralyzed following a devastating car accident.

"I realized I couldn't feel from (the top) down," Atchinson said. "When I got to the hospital, they said I would never walk again."

Atchinson was still accepting the news when doctors told him he'd be a great candidate for the stem cell therapy. Though he was injured just a few days before getting the offer, his body was strong and his will was even stronger.

Atchinson agreed to be a laboratory of hope -- the first human with a spinal cord injury to test human embryonic stem cells.

"We want to cure paralysis," said Dr. Donald Leslie, the medical director at the Shepard Center in Alabama. "We want to cure paralysis. We want to stop spinal cord injury. How incredible would that be?!"

Doctors began the procedure by opening his wound, then guiding a needle into his body. Doctors injected Atchinson with two million all-purpose stem cells that they hope will transform into new nerve cells and attach to muscles, refiring his central nervous system.

In the laboratory, they've used embryonic stem cells to repair the broken spinal cords of small animals that walked again. The stem cells have the potential to produce unlimited quantities of any type of cell.

Atchinson's mother says she knows that people oppose the therapy on religious grounds, but thinks they're unreasonable.

"There are some people who are against it, but until they've been put in the position I don't think they should judge anybody," Atchinson's mother told ABC News.

Atchinson says his role in the procedure was to prove it was safe, but he says he can already start to feel it working.

"Right now, I can feel that," Atchinson said while pulling at hair on his leg.

Six months after the procedure, Atchinson says he can feel a sense of weight when he places heavy items onto his lap.

As he rubs his leg, Atchinson says, "I can tell that...I can feel that there's something there."

Atchinson is holding out hope that he can one day run again like he once did before his accident.


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