Photo of a Stem Cell.
Stem Cell research is being done on humans. CC by GE Healthcare/Flickr

A milestone in embryonic stem cell research occurred Oct. 8 when the first human clinical trial began. A patient who was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury received embryonic stem cells injected directly into the area affected by trauma. The clinical trial, which will test 10 patients for a period of two years, will be used to determine if the treatment is safe for humans.

Private funds go toward stem cell research

The human clinical trial using embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries is being directed by Geron Corp., a biopharmaceutical company based in Menlo Park, Calif. In an Atlanta hospital, the Washington Post reports, the patient had millions of embryonic stem cells injected into the damaged place that made him paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. In August, a district court made sure a renewed ban on federal funds for research could go through which makes this clinical trial one that was completely funded privately. An appeal will come from the Justice Department.

Patients with spinal cord injuries feel a little hope

The Phase I trial of the embryonic stem cell therapy is where the human test is. According to the Los Angeles Times, Phase I is safe. It was tested on animals quite extensively before moving to humans. Patients with injuries between the third and 10th thoracic vertebrae will get to be a part of the test if they are one of the 10 chosen. The injury has to have happened within 14 days of treatment. The stem cells are turned into glial cells to insulate nerve fibers before being injected because stem cells can turn into any cell in the body. The coating that protects nerve cells should be able to grow back. Scientists hope that this will allow signals to travel through the spinal cord again.

Curing paralysis

Geron CEO Dr. Thomas Okarma said that the spinal cells should form the same way a spinal tissue forms in a fetus. Okarma told CNN that the process resembles fixing an electrical cable. Damaged fibers mean the wire is being exposed. The cable will end up shorting out this way. A spinal cord injury being fixed is like patching a cable. The glial cells reinsulate the nerve after penetrating the fibers. This might make paralysis something that can be fixed. It could mean permanent repair, too. The point of the human clinical trials is to make it so a patient can start working in physical therapy instead of being in complete paralysis.

Citations

Washington Post: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/checkup/2010/10/first_patient_treated_in_stem.html?wpisrc=nl_natlalert

Los Angeles Times: http://latimes.com/health/la-sci-stem-cell-trial-20101012,0,362113.story

CNN: http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/11/first-human-injected-in-human-embryonic-stem-cell-trial/?npt=NP1

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