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Northwestern takes ‘baby step’ toward helping paralyzed walk

Updated: August 25, 2011 12:31AM

An experimental treatment performed on a car-crash victim with severe spinal injuries at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Saturday could be a “baby step” toward helping the paralyzed walk, doctors say.

The same type of embryonic stem cell-based therapy has been successful in helping paralyzed lab rats walk, but researchers say it will be years before they know whether it can help humans.

During Saturday’s surgery — only the second of its kind — “oligodendrocyte progenitor cells,” derived from human embryonic stem cells, were injected into the spine of the male car-crash victim, said Dr. Richard Fessler, a neurolosurgeon and Feinberg School of Medicine professor who’s leading a national study of the treatment.

The patient — whose name was not released — was paralyzed from the chest down within the last two weeks.

He will now undergo a traditional treatment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, medical director David Chen said Tuesday.

The key aim of the study is to see whether the cells can safely be transplanted, Fessler said. It will take a year or two to know if the patient has benefitted from the treatment, but Fessler said he doesn’t anticipate that he’ll be able to walk.

“We take baby steps first,” said Fessler. “This is the first one. Generally, you don’t hit a home run the first time you swing the bat. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have hope. But I don’t want to instill false hope . . . I’m not going to go to one of these patients and say, ‘We’re going to give you a transplant and you’re going to walk.’ ”

He said only a very small number of people with spinal injuries will be among the total of 10 patients nationwide to be included in the study, the first to follow last year’s approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration of using embryonic stem cells in humans.

The first transplant was completed in Atlanta six months ago. It’s too soon to know whether that patient has benefitted, though no adverse effects have been reported, Fessler said.

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