The pioneering but controversial treatment was done Friday on a volunteer at the the Shepherd Center spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta.Previous studies had involved injecting embryonic stem cells into mice with some success. One of the keys to this treatment is an early intervention to introduce the stem cells within two weeks of the incident causing paralysis.
Doctors hope the manufactured nerve cells will prompt damaged spinal column nerves to regrow — and enable the patient to eventually recover feeling and movement.
"When we started working with human embryonic stem cells in 1999, many predicted that would be a number of decades before a cell therapy would be approved for human clinical trials," said Dr. Thomas Okarma, president of Geron, a biotech company that has already spent $170 million developing a stem cell treatment for spinal cord injuries.
It will be months before doctors know whether that gamble pays off.
In animal trials, paralyzed rats regained some movement after they were injected with nerve cells made from stem cells. But it remains to be seen if this kind of treatment works on humans.
Little is known about the brave volunteer beyond the fact that he or she was injured within the last two weeks.
Scientists will not only be looking for signs of success, but of abnormal growths including cancers, and other side effects. One of the hurdles to overcome in stem cell therapies, regardless of the source of the stem cells is their propensity to turn into cells that aren't wanted for a given application.