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  (Source: Scientific American)
Human embryonic stem cells were injected into patients with spinal cord injuries

The first clinical trial for stem cell therapy began last Friday as a patient with spinal cord injuries received an injection of human embryonic stem cells. 

The trial is being ran and managed by Geron Corp., a developer of biopharmaceuticals for the treatment of cancer and chronic degenerative diseases. The treatment on their first patient took place in Atlanta, Georgia at the Shepherd Center, which is a spinal cord and brain injury center. 

Stem cells have come a long way since Hans Keirstead, a neurobiologist at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, first turned human embryonic stem cells into oligodendrocytes, which insulate nerve fibers with fatty myelin. This coating protects the damaged nerve cells enough to restore the ability for signals to "travel up and down the spine again." From this point, the stem cells were tested on animals, where rats with spinal cord damage regained partial ability to walk and run in their hind legs again. Now, researchers have moved on to the first human trial.

"All of that work, all of that money sent to the ivory towers is manifesting something," said Keirstead. "It's a real shot in the arm for the field."

The human trial, which is a so-called Phase I trial, is in its beginning stages and the plan is to strictly test the treatment for safety rather than effectiveness for right now. If the treatment proves to be safe, researchers will then test it for effectiveness. Its proven effectiveness could lead to the treatment of diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other neurodegenerative diseases. 

To test for safety, researchers are enrolling up to 10 patients with spinal cord injuries located between the third and 10th thoracic vertebrae. The stem cells are injected within 14 days after injury. 

The Shepherd Center in Atlanta will not be the only test site for the trial, though. Northwestern University near Chicago, as well as seven other centers, will be involved in this phase of the trial. The expected duration time of the human trial is two years after the last patient is registered. 

"I've got a couple of years of waking up and looking at the news every day, hoping and praying we're doing good for people and not bad," said Keirstead.

Researchers have high hopes that the stem cells will prove to be safe, and ultimately effective, but Keirstead noted that even if the treatment doesn't give human patients the ability to walk or run once again, it will allow them to be more in control of their bladder, bowel and sexual functions. The key is to "greatly improve their quality of life."





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