It’s been tested on animals for years, but today marked the first federally approved trial of embryonic stem cell therapy on a human. Geron, a biotech firm in California, injected a spinal chord injury patient with a cocktail of spinal cells this morning and if all goes well … nothing much will happen.
Yes, the moment is historic but for now, the trial is just a safety-test and the injection held the lowest dose of the stem cell concoction possible. Also, only the most severely injured patients are eligible. Today’s patient—whom Geron has kept anonymous—suffered a “thoracic spinal cord injury” which means he or she is a paraplegic with no movement below the chest.
In previous research using rats with injured spinal cords, the treatment restored some mobility in their hind legs, giving them some ability to walk again. But even if today’s trial proves safe, no one can really predict how much the treatment may help humans.
Still, the medical world seems to be buzzing with the possibilities (and ethical gray areas) ahead:
“It’s important because these are embryonic stem cells—the most potent we have available for therapy. They can make all the 200 cell types in the body and they can make them in quantity. If this therapy is successful, and that might take five to ten years, then we will be able to manufacture it in the scale we need.”— Professor Chris Mason from University College London.
“It’s great news — my hat’s off to them for being the first.”— Dr. Bob Lanza of Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology.
“Spinal cord injury patients can show spontaneous improvement within the three months after injury, even up to 18 months. It will be difficult to determine whether Geron’s injected cells had any real effect. We wish the patient well but think Geron is irresponsible for this premature hype.”–David Prentice, Family Research Council’s senior fellow for life sciences.