For those of you who missed it, last Friday, for the first time in the history of the world, doctors injected stem cells into a human patient with a spinal cord injury. This was done at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, using breakthrough medical technology developed by Geron.
The long term potential here is enormous, but it's the short term possibilities I find compelling. Spinal cord injuries often strip from the nerves the myelin, the sheathing or tubing around these fibers that permit them to function. Without this myelin, messages can't be carried; the brain sends out a command, but when it gets to the demyleinated section, it goes haywire, popping off into the ether, and the limb doesn't move. You're paralyzed, in other words.
Besides things like accidents, one of the other conditions that can cause this is transverse myelitis (tm), in which lesions form on the spinal cord and strip off the myelin in that section. For the readers who don't know, in August 2008 I came down with tm, and have been a hemiplegic ever since.
Thus, this new knowledge holds the potential for helping my life, but in less than obvious ways. In the long run the benefits could be enormous. Put in terms that would make Elmer Gantry proud, in the future people who experience spinal cord car accidents or tm would be able to walk again because of these treatments.
Important as this is, it will not affect me. These are early test cases, with years of study to go before a workable, safe injection. I'm too old, as is my condition; the first subjects all experienced their injuries within fourteen days of the test's start date.
Even after the studies mature, the effects of this therapy may be limited. There is no guarantee as to how much myelin will regrow, how much mobility will return.
But there is a much more intriguing possibility. At the last meeting of the Southern California Chapter of the Transverse Myelitis Association, we made an interesting discovery of our own. Now tm affects people in a near infinite number of ways, depending on where and how the spinal cord is affected. We have members who are paraplegics, hemiplegics, quadriplegics--and those who can walk on their own. Also folks who need a walker. And some use a cane. So what was our big finding?
It turned out the one thing we all had in common was bowel and bladder problems. You see, it's not just the limbs that don't work, but your insides as well. And that causes complications. Urinary tract infections, for example, are as common to us as gum drops. And for both men as well as women.
In my case the particulars are the cause of considerable grief. Because my bladder is partially paralyzed it does not stretch, like the ones that other folks have. As a result, I have to go to the bathroom every hour and a half to two hours--24 hours a day. The last time I slept through the night was over two years ago. I flew for the first time this summer, and since I can't dream of making it into the cubby-hole sized bathrooms on planes, we had to take extraordinary measures.
So imagine my delight when I read that Dr. Hans Keirstead, a neurobiologist at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine, told the LA Times that even if individuals never run a marathon again--or even for a block--because of stem cells, "it might greatly improve their quality of life by giving them more control over bowel, bladder and sexual functions."
Hallelujah! I'll take it! I've spoken to some other people from the group, and we're all jumping with joy; figuratively speaking, of course. Forget that over rated activity called walking; I'll take a good night's sleep any day.
And for those folks, starting with former president George Bush, who blocked stem cell research for eight years, and still oppose it: I wish you a long life, and one filled with bladder and bowel problems.