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Renewed hope for patients with spinal cord injuries. An experimental treatment gets a second chance to show its promise.

It was considered a significant step forward. Stem cells injected at the site of a spinal cord injury. The hope was to repair nerves damaged by trauma – and to help paralyzed patients regain function. Not long after, the drug company backing the research abruptly ended the investigation, shifting their focus to other medical therapies. But not all was lost — researchers were able to show the treatment was safe. Now, three years later, Rush University Medical Center neurosurgeon Richard Fessler is picking up – ahead of where he left off.

Dr Richard Fessler, Rush neurosurgeon: “Because we demonstrated safety in the thoracic spine, the FDA has allowed us to take the next step, which is to do the transplantation in the cervical spine.”

The cervical spine controls function in the arms and hands. That’s why a potential treatment is so critical.

Dr Fessler: “These patients are paralyzed from the neck down, so they’ve lost function in their hands. Most have some function in their upper arms. If we could give one centimeter of this tissue back so you have good triceps and now you can use your hands, it is a life-changing event.”

The cells come from a line of human embryonic stem cells long used for research purposes. They work to re-coat damaged nerve fibers … restoring a proper, functioning pathway.

Dr Fessler: “We remove the bones back here, open the dura and then inject the cells right at the bottom of injury. The type of patient this could potentially be successful for is the patient who has had a crush injury, but their spinal cord is still intact. We’re still very early in this research. When we make a breakthrough it will be a very humbling experience for all of us.”

Rush hopes to enroll three patients initially then add more as the study progresses. The stem cells need to be injected within 14 to 30 days after a patient is injured. And Dr Fessler says he doesn’t expect to see any changes in patients sooner than six months to a year.

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Contact: Michelle Smreczak 312-942-8614