Novel stem cell treatment helps paralyzed patients feel again

Embryologist Ric Ross holds a dish with human embryos at the La Jolla IVF Clinic February 28, 2007 in La Jolla, California.
Embryologist Ric Ross holds a dish with human embryos at the La Jolla IVF Clinic February 28, 2007 in La Jolla, California.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

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Two clinical trial patients, paralyzed with chronic spinal cord injuries, have regained some sensation after undergoing stem cell treatments led by a California biotech company and researchers from the University of Zurich.

The clinical trials by Newark, California-based StemCells, Inc involved three patients, two of whom regained some feeling after scientists injected them with purified human neural stem cells.

The neural stem cells are essentially adult stem cells that can renew and replicate into cells of the nervous system. They were derived from donated fetal brain cells, which don’t require the controversial destruction of embryos, a company spokesman said.

The news comes ten months after another California biotech company — Menlo-Park-based Geron Corporation — surprised and disappointed many in the field when it abandoned its stem cell division – including its highly-touted research into an embryonic stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries.

The three patients in the University of Zurich trials had suffered complete injury to the thoracic - or chest-level — spinal cord, which left each them with no function or feeling below the injury.

Four to nine months after their injuries, scientists at the University of Zurich transplanted 20 million stem cells into each patient's spinal column at the point of injury.

Six months after treatment, two of the patients can feel heat, electrical and touch stimuli below the location of the injury, according to results presented by researchers this week at the 51st annual International Spinal Cord Society meeting in London.

The reappearance of sensation was deemed “rather unexpected” by Dr. Armin Curt, principal investigator for the clinical trial at the Spinal Cord Injury Center at Balgrist University Hospital, University of Zurich.

"We are very intrigued to see that two of the three patients have gained considerable sensory function,” Curt said, in a press release issued by StemCells, Inc. “The gains in sensation have evolved in a progressive pattern below the level of injury and are unanticipated in spinal cord injury patients with this severity of injury, suggesting that the neural stem cells are having a beneficial clinical effect.”

The three patients are the first of a dozen scheduled for the therapy.

“Every step forward is hugely significant to people who have been told there is no hope,” Don Reed, president of the nonprofit Roman Reed Foundation that supports stem cell research into spinal cord injuries told KPCC upon hearing the news.

Reed is urging Governor Brown to sign AB1657, a bill that would further support stem cell research into spinal cord injuries by adding a $1 penalty to traffic tickets.

An estimated 147,000 Californians suffer from spinal cord injuries.