In the aftermath of a tragedy, Kristopher Boesen got lucky. In March 2016, shortly before his 21st birthday, Kris lost control of his car as it fishtailed on a slippery road and smashed into a telephone pole. He was left paralyzed from the neck down.
Immediately after the accident, Kris’ parents were informed of calls for participants in a clinical trial of the use of stem cell therapy (also known as regenerative medicine) to treat spinal cord injuries at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Keck Medical Center. The window of opportunity was narrow, since first treatment must occur within 30 days of injury, and there was no guarantee of any improvement.
From Kris’ perspective, “All I’ve wanted from the beginning was a fighting chance. But if there’s a chance for me to walk again, then heck yeah! I want to do anything possible to do that.”
The Beginnings Of Stem Cell Therapy
The term “stem cell” was first used in 1868 by a German scientist to refer to the egg from which a living organism grows. In 1909, a Russian scientist introduced the theory that additional blood cells could be grown from one single cell. An American study in 1953 found that cells could promulgate among different types of cells in the same proximity, leading to the idea that one type of cell could be morphed into another.
The first successful bone marrow transplant (in which blood stem cells are taken from one person and injected into another) took place in 1968. Since then, scientists have been endeavoring to explore the different ways this type of treatment can work, manipulating cells of one type to change into another.
Stem cell therapy has been the subject of debate since it was first proven effective in 1968.
In vitro and animal experiments have been successful in transforming cell types and re-applying them, correcting certain types of disease. Embryonic and adult stem cells have been used in the research; controversy arose over the use of cells from embryos because of the debate over when human life begins. Cells taken from fertilized eggs are thought to be the most adaptable, as cells naturally proliferate and specialize during early gestation. Cells from unfertilized eggs (referred to as therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer) have been tried in animals other than humans with some success.
Research continues in this area, as there may be less chance of rejection from this source and may, therefore, be a better option. Adult and umbilical cord cells have become ethically preferable but have not proven effective for every situation. Scientists are also looking into stem cells collected from baby teeth.
A 2013 study using adipose (fat) tissue to derive adult stem cells showed “excellent feasibility and safety” as an alternative to other sources of stem cells (1). In the USC study, embryonic stem cells were used.
Kris’s New Lease On Life
During Kris’s treatment, the embryo cells were converted into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPC)—those found in the brain and spinal cord. In laboratory experiments, OPCs were found to stimulate new blood cell production and the formation of new nerve sheaths, aiding in the transmission of nerve impulses along damaged nerves. Kris’ spine was injected with 10 million OPC at the injury site.
Just 2 weeks after the surgery, Kris showed signs of mobility in his upper body. After 3 months, he was able to use his arms and hands for even fine motor tasks, like feeding himself and using his cell phone. His progress will continue to be monitored over time. Doctors don’t know how Kris’ strength and mobility will progress but they are cautiously optimistic.
The head surgeon in the procedure is pleased with its outcome thus far: “As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels. In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels mean the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer, or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.” (2)
Despite any controversy, stem cell therapy research continues.
Applications for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), muscular dystrophy, heart and lung disease, skin grafting, and other conditions are being studied.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration holds jurisdiction over stem cell therapies, as they fall under the umbrella of “biologics”, or living drugs. It has been tasked with developing guidelines for the development and use of this type of treatment; a workshop was held in September 2016 with prominent physicians and scientists in the field to discuss all the issues involved. The guidelines have not yet been completed. Current policy limits federal funding for stem cell research involving embryos. It also limits which U.S. clinics are allowed to employ stem cell therapy of any kind.
For Kristopher Boesen, the use of stem cells has turned tragedy into hope.