Since I’ve been injured I’ve done a bit of research into the latest trends in the Stem Cell environment with regards to Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). When I was first injured about a year ago I was at a point in my recovery where I would volunteer for any kind of therapy that had a chance of increasing my quality of life. I even sent some of my records to Stem Cell surgeons in other countries to apply for clinical trials and treatment. Luckily, I did not have any procedures done, knowing what I know now.
My first experience with any stem cell organization was an information session at Project WALK Orlando with Dr. Zannos Grekos in Florida. Ironically enough, it was my OCD that kicked in when he was giving a powerpoint presentation that just seemed subpar to me. There weren’t any factual errors, but it was just one of those presentations that left me thinking ‘Man, I could really help them make that powerpoint presentation better…’ – basic issues like background/font color combinations, improperly indented bullets and video links that didn’t work. Anyways, after the good doctor was done explaining the procedures that he revolutionized, and how he was a cardiologist, but could cure virtually any disease with his treatments that were not approved by the US FDA I was certainly intrigued. I spoke with his assistant who told me that the procedure only took three days and was ‘like going to an all-inclusive resort’ in the Dominican Republic, for only $18,500. I took the pamphlet and card from his organization REGENOCYTE and planned to do some more research when I got home.
Unfortunately for the doctor, he has left a digital trail of tears on Google. All of the unsponsored links, except one, on the first page go to news articles with headlines like ‘State medical board revokes license of stem cell doctor Zannos Grekos’ among others. After doing some reading there are some very critical articles about him and how is a businessman, now that his license to practice medicine was revoked in the state of Florida after two of his patients died after receiving ‘treatments’ from him. There are even blogging sites like this one that call him a killer http://sctmonitor.blogspot.com/2012/03/grekos-kills-again.html.
This website actually has links to ‘Busted Mugshots.com’ which has captured more busted mugs of people I knew than I would like to admit and doesn’t portray him in such a good light.
I decided to look elsewhere for opportunities to receive stem cell therapies and then found a clinical trial in Switzerland that I applied for and was denied due to the penetrating trauma I received during my injury. There are a lot of clinical trials listed and being conducted in countries like China and India, but my doctors advised me to be very skeptical of other countries, specifically China because of their political climate and that it may interfere with research methodology.
The next place I looked was the Stem Cell Institute (http://www.cellmedicine.com) in Panama that would do eight injections over a month for around $30,000. This seemed to be legitimate and their course of treatment involved utilizing umbilical cord blood from donors that was refined and processed. I do think there may be some merit to this type of utilization of stem cells in the future and have even heard of parents now saving infants cord blood in the event they should need a concentrated supply of stem cells should they get injured in their lifetime. There is significant benefit to this because there would be little or no chance of rejection and the cells would already be matched for injection. A Google search for ‘Preserve umbilical cord blood’ revealed that there are many blood banks that will store blood for anywhere between $775 and $2500. Anyways, after hearing from other research scientists who have personally done the surgery to inject stem cells into the spines of rats and primates, they explained that simple injections into the spinal column will almost always result in no effect because the stem cells get washed away by the cerebrospinal fluid.
Over the past two months, I attended a ‘Lunch and Learn’ and ‘Meet the Scientists’ courtesy of the HeadNORTH non-profit organization. At these events I met Dr. Ephron Rosenzweig, a research scientist at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), and the findings he presented were very intriguing. He was, by far, the most knowledgeable person I have met to date regarding the latest research in the field. He explained what his research team is currently doing and answered all of the questions posed by the crowd. He displayed incredible images of things that his team was able to accomplish in their research and certainly gave me hope for the future.
His team has conducted extensive research into the use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells to regenerate spinal cords in Rats and Primates. They have been able to generate significant axon growth in a relatively short period of time. There are a lot of different technologies and advances in research that have facilitated their findings. One of these advances is the ability to dye donor cells a certain color to differentiate between old cells and new growth. Another is a concoction created by another UCSD scientist that acts as a paste to keep donor cells in place near the lesion of the Spinal Cord, instead of getting washed away by cerebrospinal fluids. In addition to using this concoction, the scientists had to perform the surgery with the patient at a 45-degree angle to prevent the flow of fluid from washing the cells away, which happened in their first trial in primates.
Where they currently are with their research is that they have gotten Human Embryonic Stem Cells to grow in rats and primates with acute and chronic, functionally complete SCI. This growth has not resulted in any functional recovery in the animals as this was not the goal of the research and the longest they have conducted research has been six weeks. The new axons that were generated did transmit signals up and down the length of their growth and grew nicely into the old spinal cord cells. At this point it appears that the new cells would transmit signals, and with therapy to relearn movement patterns, may result in functional recovery of some sort. The reason why this was not examined during the current research protocols is because of the difficulties encountered while conducting long-term research. As the scientists explained during their lecture, it is incredibly difficult to keep the animals alive long enough to see results. The research animals often get sick and die, because they have to be immuno-suppressed for the duration of the treatment protocol, so that Human Stem Cells can grow into the Rat/Primate species. The research team has identified some potential benefit into long-term studies and analysis of functional recovery and I believe this is something they may pursue in the future.
There are some important questions that are still unanswered at this point regarding the safety of this procedure for humans. Mainly, how can we control the growth rate of the axons? If we are unable to stop the axons from growing once they have reached an appropriate length then the cells essentially become a tumor and grow out of control, which would most likely cause further paralysis and eventually death. This was the part that really struck me, and changed the way I was approaching Stem Cell treatment. I am always skeptical of anything doctors tell me, and don’t take anything as a given, but the sincerity with which Dr. Rosenzweig explained the potential dangers of stem cells really hit home. As bad as it is being paralyzed, I still would like to live as long and healthy life as possible, even if it is in a wheelchair.
I think in the next 5-10 years there will be clinical research for stem cell therapy in humans. It remains to be seen how successful this treatment will be at first, but I believe there is significant promise in this research and that significant progress will be made in my lifetime.
Lastly, I would like to explain the ethics of stem cell research as there has been a consistently negative media campaign run by extreme conservatives led by emotional arguments against abortion. All stem cell research in the US is conducted with cells from a finite supply managed by the appropriate government agencies. So regardless of how many new studies are conducted, no abortions will occur to support any type of research that is conducted in the USA. The highest level of care and regards are given to these research protocols and there is no requirement for abortions to facilitate clinical research. You can support stem cell research that may have the potential to drastically improve the quality of life for injured patients without having to support abortion.