Stem cells giving new hope to spinal cord injury patients

Medical Watch
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For the first time in history – movement after spinal cord injury! A local doctor has spent two decades focused on this research. We have been following his efforts and today – a report on some very hopeful news.

Dr Richard Fessler, neurosurgeon, Rush University Medical Center: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It’s nice to get a result.”

It’s his life’s work. Rush University Medical Center neurosurgeon Dr Richard Fessler has devoted his career to helping patients with spinal cord injuries.

Dr Fessler: “The exciting thing is this is the first time in history.”

These are embryonic stem cells being injected directly into the site of injury in the neck. The special cells produce myelin – the protective sheath that helps nerves function normally. But when a spinal cord is injured – typically crushed in a traumatic accident – function is lost.

Dr Fessler: “If you have a nerve that is marginally functional but it’s lost its coating, it doesn’t work anymore. So what these cells are doing is recoating those nerves so they start to work at least more normally. This study is being done in the neck, and the cells only have to grow about a centimeter or two to have a major functional effect. So imagine the person who is paralyzed in his neck and can only lift his shoulders but has no motion of his biceps his triceps or his hands.”

That was the case for the five patients who have received the experimental treatment so far – a dose of 10 million stem cells. All have experienced improvement in upper extremity motor function – some have fared even better.

Dr Fessler: “These cells grow two centimeters and cover one to two more levels. Now he can use his biceps and he can use his hands, so now he’s gone from not being able to do anything to probably being able to feed himself or to hold someone, things of that nature. It’s life changing.”

Now researchers are ready to up the dose of cells – in the next phase of the study patients will receive 20 million stem cells.

Dr Fessler: “Theoretically, the more cells that we put, the higher the probability that they will live and make connections. These are very early results. We’re very excited about them, but we’re not going to cure paralysis tomorrow. But we have hope.”

The transplant must be done within 30 days of a cervical spine injury. And doctors are following patients for any signs of trouble – like infection, abnormal cell growth or an immune system reaction. So far, they haven’t seen any complications in the patients enrolled.

The clinical trial is being conducted at Rush and other sites around the country. The study seeks male and female patients ages 18 to 65 who recently experienced a cervical spinal cord injury at the neck that resulted in partial or total paralysis of arms, legs and torso. Participants must be able to provide consent and commit to a long-term follow-up study.

If you’re interested in participating, contact:

Carol MacPherson: 312-942-1134,

Paulina Aguilar: 312-942-7877,


More information:

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