In a pioneering landmark trial, a patient with a paralysing spinal cord injury has been the first human test subject for a controversial stem cell treatment.
January last year saw the US Food and Drug Administration give the go-ahead for Geron, a California based biotechnology company to start the highly anticipated human trials. To date Geron has spent in the region of $170m developing the treatment, which involves injecting stem cells directly into the spinal cord.
The unnamed patient was treated last Friday at a specialist spine and brain injury unit at a hospital in Atlanta. Other patients who have sustained spinal injuries within the last 14 days will also be administered the experimental treatment.
In previous animal trials, paralysed rats regained some movement and improved their ability to walk, but the effects of the treatment on humans is still unknown.
Currently the trial is in phase one, meaning doctors are only aiming to establish whether the treatment is safe for use in humans. Further trials in the next few years will actually determine the effectiveness of the treatment in repairing spinal cord injuries.
The trial is expected to be bitterly opposed by the Catholic Church and other pro-life organisations that take exception to the use of spare human embryos from IVF clinics to harvest stem cells.
Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, said: “This first-in-man study marks the dawn of the stem cell age. There are still many years of rigorous testing ahead and no doubt there will be setbacks and failures before we have safe and effective cell-based therapies”.
UK stem cell researchers hope to begin similar trials next year with a treatment for age-related macular degeneration – a leading cause of blindness in the over-50’s.