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Fragile Steps

The dreams of millions ride on trials for a treatment that could allow the paralyzed to walk.
June 21, 2011

On March 1, 2002, Hans Keirstead handed me the future of medicine. It was a white laboratory rat, and holding it made me feel an odd mixture of awe, jealousy, and pure joy. It had once been paralyzed, like me. But the rat walked again.

That rat had been given a product derived from human embryonic stem cells—a product that I had played my own role in creating. A California law, the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Act of 1999, had provided Keirstead’s initial seed funding. Perhaps never has $92,000 been so wisely spent! The pharmaceutical company Geron acquired the rights to the process and fought its way past many obstacles and hurdles before gaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for human trials (see “Stem-Cell Gamble). On May 4, 2011, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine lent Geron $25 million to help with the costs.

These important and required safety tests are hugely expensive. But this first-of-a-kind treatment could transform the lives of many people. Paralysis resulting from spinal-cord injury is a devastating condition that currently affects just under 1.3 million Americans. When the various other forms of paralysis are taken into account, 5.6 million Americans have a stake in the outcome.

The Geron trials will not immediately help folks who, like me, have been paralyzed for a while. These first trials are studying the newly injured. But when it comes to paralysis, what helps anyone helps everyone. These trials are creating and codifying a process that can now be used to test other treatments derived from embryonic stem cells—treatments for diabetes, blindness, and more.

These trials could show that we can actually cure the most disabling conditions instead of just maintaining people, often in misery. There are gains for the rest of society, too. Chronic illnesses account for 84 percent of total U.S. health spending, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Regenerative medicine like that pioneered in the current trial offers the possibility of cutting those costs and bringing huge gains to the biomedical industry and the whole economy.

Unfortunately, the funding that made this research possible is now endangered. The future of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is threatened by the state’s ongoing budget crisis. Meanwhile, funding for the Roman Reed Act recently expired, and I am currently campaigning to renew it. The Geron trial is a great start for this field, but we can’t let future research with similar potential die on the vine for lack of support.

Roman Reed was paralyzed in a college football accident and is president of the nonprofit Roman Reed Foundation, which campaigns to support development of treatments for spinal-cord paralysis.

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