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Stem cell therapy restores arm, hand movement for paralyzed man

A 21-year-old man left paralyzed after a spinal cord injury has regained the use of his arms and hands, thanks to an experimental stem cell treatment performed by researchers from the Keck Medical Center at the University of Southern California.
[A man squeezing a stress ball]
Researchers have restored arm and hand function to a paralyzed man with injections of an agent called AST-OPC1.

In March of this year, Kristopher (Kris) Boesen, from Bakersfield, CA, was involved in a car accident, in which he suffered severe trauma to his cervical spine that left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe without assistance.

Doctors told Kris that he might never regain the use of his limbs; current surgical procedures for spinal cord injury focus on stabilizing the spine to prevent further damage, but they rarely improve movement and sensation.

Kris then learned of a clinical trial – led by Dr. Edward D. Wirth III, chief medical director of Asterias Biotherapeutics – looking to enroll patients with spinal cord injury.

The ongoing trial is testing a novel therapy involving injections of AST-OPC1 – an agent consisting of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) that derive from embryonic stem cells. OPCs are the myelin-forming cells of the brain and spinal cord that help nerve cells to function.

According to Asterias Biotherapeutics – the developer of AST-OPC1 – preclinical trials of the agent in models of spinal cord injury have shown it leads to “reduction of the size of the injury cavity, restoration of the protective ‘myelin’ coating on nerve cells, production of factors that stimulate nerve cell growth, and recruitment of blood vessels to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the site.”

In order to take part in the trial – named “SCiStar” – patients need to be able to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Though it normally takes 3 weeks to wean a patient off assisted breathing, with the help of a dedicated respiratory team, Kris managed it in 5 days.

After further tests, he was confirmed as being eligible to take part in the trial.

Improvements in motor function seen within 2 weeks of treatment

In April of this year, Kris underwent the injection procedure, overseen by Dr. Charles Liu, director of the Neurorestoration Center at the University of Southern California (USC).

The procedure involved the injection of 10 million AST-OPC1 cells directly into the cervical spinal cord.

Within 2 weeks of the treatment, Kris began to achieve some movement in his arms and hands. Within 3 months, he regained the ability to engage in a number of everyday tasks, such as writing his name, feeding himself, operating a motorized wheelchair, and hugging his family.

“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels,” says Dr. Liu. “In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels means the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.”

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, each year, there are approximately 17,000 new cases of spinal cord injury in the United States, with vehicle accidents being the leading cause.

While the researchers are unable to say whether Kris will regain the use of his legs, they are encouraged by his case and hope AST-OPC1 will continue to improve quality of life for patients with spinal cord injury.

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.”

Dr. Charles Liu

To take part in the SCiStar trial, patients must be aged 18-69, and they must be in a condition that is stable enough to receive AST-OPC1 injections 14-30 days after spinal cord injury.

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