Atlanta has just become the point where embryonic stem cell research meets a human being in the United States. From the Washington Post:
The first patient has been treated with human embryonic stem cells in the first study authorized by the Food and Drug Administration to test the controversial therapy.
A patient who was partially paralyzed by a spinal cord injury had millions of embryonic stem cells injected into the site of the damage, according to an announcement early Monday by the Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., which is sponsoring the groundbreaking study.
The patient was treated at the Shepherd Center, a 132-bed hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries, Geron said. The hospital is one of seven sites participating in the study, which is primarily aimed at testing whether the therapy is safe.
Doctors will, however, also conduct a series of specially designed tests to see whether the treatment helps the patients. No additional information about the first patient was released.
So why is this on a political blog? Because several attempts to bar embryonic stem cell research in Georgia have arisen from the state Capitol in recent years. Many, though not all, conservative Christians oppose it.
In the governor’s race, the topic is one of the issues that differentiate Democrat Roy Barnes, who supports ESC research, from Republican Nathan Deal, who does not.
Geron is not subject to limitations on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, as it has done all its work with its own funding.
The government is embroiled in a legal battle over the cells. Just weeks after he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that eased limitations on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
Geron, a biotech company based in “silicon valley” south of San Francisco, has spent $170m on developing a stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury.
The research will use cells coaxed to become nerve cells which are injected into the spinal cord.
In animal trials of the treatment, paralysed rats regained some movement.
But it is not yet known if it will offer any benefit to people with spinal cord injuries.
Every year around 12,000 people in the US sustain spinal cord injuries. The most common causes are automobile accidents, falls, gunshot wounds and sports injuries.
In the trial, patients who have sustained such an injury within the last 14 days will be given the experimental stem cell treatment.
Geron president Dr Thomas Okarma said: “When we started working with human embryonic stem cells in 1999, many predicted that it would be a number of decades before a cell therapy would be approved for human clinical trials.
“This accomplishment results from extensive research and development and a succession of inventive steps.”
But it will take some time to get the results.
And there are many years of rigorous testing ahead before it can be known if the therapy is safe and effective.
Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This is very exciting news, however, it is very important to appreciate that the objective of trials at this stage is to confirm first of all that no harm is done to patients, rather than to look for benefits.
“Once that has been confirmed then the focus moves on to development and assessment of the new treatment.”
Ben Sykes, executive director of the UK National Stem Cell Network, said: “This is indeed a significant milestone in our journey towards the promise of stem cell-based medicines.