Thanks to stem cells, some totally paralyzed patients can now move their arms again

Doing what seemed impossible.
Doing what seemed impossible.
Image: Greg Iger/Keck Medicine of USC
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Following separate, nasty car accidents, Kris Boesen and Lucas Lindner were left with paralyzing spinal-cord injuries. Doctors thought they both would be unable to use any of their limbs for the rest of their lives. Luckily, that grim future hasn’t become a reality because of a radical new treatment.

Soon after their accidents, Boesen and Lindner took part in a clinical trial that involved receiving an injection of stem cells into their spines. Stem cells are the body’s building blocks—they are able to transform into other kinds of cells in the body. This would, in theory, give them the ability to repair any injury in the body. However, for many decades, scientists have struggled to transform their magical abilities into workable treatments.

But earlier this month, Asterias Biotherapeutics, the company behind the treatement, reported trial results and found that all five patients, including Boesen and Lindner, showed signs of recovery—and remarkably fast. Some of them are able to move their arms now. “We came out early with the data because it was so compelling,” Asterias CEO Stephen Cartt told Reuters. “We were expecting to wait until January.”

The clinical trial’s efficacy goal was to help at least two of its five patients to recover some movement on one side of their body within six to 12 months of receiving 10 million AST-OPC1 stem cells via an injection. Oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPC) are a type of stem cell found in the brain and spinal cord. The trial seems to have hit its goals in less than three months after the patients received the treatment.

In Boesen’s case, the recovery has allowed him to feed himself, write, and even lift weights.

“Typically, spinal cord injury patients undergo surgery that stabilizes the spine but generally does very little to restore motor or sensory function,” said Charles Liu, lead surgeon for the trial and neurology professor at the University of Southern California, in a statement. “With this study, we are testing a procedure that may improve neurological function, which could mean the difference between being permanently paralyzed and being able to use one’s arms and hands. Restoring that level of function could significantly improve the daily lives of patients with severe spinal injuries.”

The patients will be monitored for 12 months. The hope is that the gains they’ve made will hold and perhaps they will make further recovery. The success so far has already helped the company receive approval to double the dose of OPC cells in the next phase of the trial.