Geron Corporation, a biotech firm, has started the first human trials using embryonic stem cells to treat people with recent spinal cord injuries. The patient is at the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord and brain injury rehab center in Atlanta.
Animal experiments in treating recent spinal cord injuries with stem cells have met with some success. The human trial, which will shortly expand nationwide, will not only study the efficacy of the treatment, but its safety. The idea is the stem cells will travel to the area of the spinal cord that has been injured and stimulate the repair of the nerve cells, alleviating partial or total paralysis that occurs as a result of spinal cord injuries.
The stems cells are extracted from embryos left over from fertility clinics and are altered to become the precursor of various other human cells, in this case nerve cells.
The Geron Corporation is avoiding federal restrictions on stem cell research by using its own funds for the human trial program. Nevertheless, there are ethical questions about embryonic stem cell research, mostly raised by people who hold that human life begins at conception. There is also the question of embryos being created, not for the purpose of growing a human baby, but as a source for harvesting stem cells.
Use of adult stem cells, taken from a live human being and then treated to become the precursor cells, has met with some success in research programs. Should adult stem cells be used for, say, repairing spinal cord injuries, then the ethical questions surrounding embryonic stem cell use would be avoided.
Besides repairing spinal cords, various proposed use of stem cells include repairing damaged brains of people who have either injuries or ailments like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or repair of other organs, such as hearts or livers, for instance.
The prospect of being able to fix a spinal cord injury, even if it is just shortly after it occurs, is a compelling one. Thousands of people every year suffer spinal cord injuries, resulting in partial or total paralysis. This leads to a degradation in their quality of life, in which people are confined to wheel chairs and need assistance in handling basic bodily functions. In severe cases, as what happened to actor and spinal cord research advocate Christopher Reeve, early death is a clear prospect.
A treatment that repairs spinal cord injuries would mean that thousands of people will avoid a lifetime of reduced mobility and other ill effects. Long term health care costs should also be reduced — not a frivolous consideration.
Source: First patient treated in Geron stem cell trial, Reuters, October 11th, 2010