The California stem cell research program has awarded $14.3 million to Asterias Biotherapeutics, Inc., to help bring its human embryonic stem cell treatment closer to paralyzed people.
For my paralyzed son Roman Reed, currently on the ballot for California State Senate, this is a high point in the quest for cure. A bill named after him, the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999, funded Dr. Hans Keirstead's original research, which Geron bought. Under the leadership of Tom Okarma, then President of Geron, the research went through 8 long years of FDA tests.
It was a tremendous blow to the stem cell field when new management at Geron ended its commitment to stem cell research.
But the science was strong, and it remained, waiting for someone to carry it forward.
How does it work? When the brain sends a message through a healthy spine to the body, the nerves pass it along. But like electrical wire, the nerves must be insulated, or the message will short circuit. When a spine is damaged, so are the individual nerves. For them to work, a fatty acid called myelin must provide insulation.
To make that myelin, embryonic stem cells (made from a stem cell line approved during the Bush Presidency) differentiate into oligodendrocytes. Making myelin is their job. Injected into the spine, the "ollies" re-insulate the nerves.
Several quite wonderful things can happen after that.
First, the amount of damage to the spine is hopefully lessened. In a spinal cord injury, only half the damage is done by the physical accident; the trauma of car crash (or sports injury, like Roman's football accident) is just the beginning. After that, the body's immune system literally rips into the damage point, enlarging the cavity, and doubling the damage. But with the new invention, this secondary damage (and the accompanying paralysis) may be greatly lessened.
Second, there appears to be a wave of nutrients for the damaged area, a sort of nerve fertilizer.
Third, the nerves re-insulate themselves, so abilities lost may be partially recovered.
I have seen this in action. On March 1, 2002, at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, I held in my hands a formerly paralyzed rat called Fighter. Videos showed her dragging her body like luggage. But now, thanks to the injected stem cells, she could scamper -- tail high! -- across the purple plastic swimming pool, her exercise area.
Fighter was one of the famous "rats that walked again," of which paralyzed Superman Christopher Reeve said: "Oh, to be a rat!"
Eight years of hard work on Geron's part took the research to the point of being the "first in man" clinical trials. Think what that means! For the first time in the history of the world, an attempt was being made to use embryonic stem cells to attack the previously incurable condition of paralysis.
Five newly injured patients were injected with the cells. This was an FDA phase one trial, so only small amounts were administered. The point of phase one is to know if it was safe or not.
There were no significant side effects from the stem cells at all. Roman has become friends with two of the patients, TJ Atchison, and Katie Sharify. In fact, Roman worked with TJ to establish a spinal cord injury research program similar to California's, at the University of Alabama.
The California stem cell program loaned the company $25 million to help with the trials -- and then Geron pulled out. The money (plus interest) was returned.
But the scientists found a way. Mike West, one of the great pioneers of Biomed and the founder of Geron, is leading the effort.
Asterias Biotherapeutics, like its stem cells, is a study in regeneration. A visit to its website shows that many of its top executives are the people who formerly worked with Geron, but who were all laid off when that company quit its involvement with stem cells. Their funds gone, their jobs lost -- most people would have given up. But these folks are not real good at giving up. Their new company, Asterias Biotherapeutics (a subsidiary of BioTime) bought the stem cell properties from Geron, and got ready to go again.
And now, $14.3 million from the California stem cell program will help Asterias Biotherapeutics Inc. carry the trials forward.
A great circle has been closed, bringing scientists, universities, biomed, patients, and advocates together, uniting our strength. California's stem cell program as a public/private cooperation is a working reality; it has advanced the cause of cure.
And maybe, because of what happened this day, there will be come a time -- may it be soon! -- when paralysis is no longer a life sentence.