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Doctor: We can change the world with human embryonic stem cells
December 30th, 2010
05:17 PM ET

Doctor: We can change the world with human embryonic stem cells

Editor’s note: This week, The Chart is taking a closer look at the most important health stories of 2010. One was stem cell research, a topic with which Dr. John McDonald  is very familiar. McDonald is director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. The longtime stem cell researcher, who was one of Christopher Reeve’s physicians, provides his perspective on the first human clinical trial of embryonic stem cell research.

By Dr. John McDonald
Special to CNN

We are living in an amazing time.

This year marked what just a decade ago many believed would be an impossible feat - the first human has been injected with cells from human embryonic stem cells (hES). hES cells, and embryonic stem cells in general, are one of the greatest scientific tools for discovery of the 21st century.

The clinical trial brings together the best we have to offer in central nervous system research to address the difficult problem of spinal cord injury.

It is a phase I open label safety trial. To be included, individuals have to have suffered a complete thoracic spinal cord injury, which means no movement or sensation below the injury level. The injury to the spinal cord must have occurred between the third and 10th thoracic neurological levels, and the individual has to be injected with the stem cell therapy, called GRNOPC1, within seven to 14 days after the injury.

Many of my fellow researchers expect that the trial will be safe because previous trials have demonstrated the safety of cell transplantation in the injured central nervous system.

Following this initial safety trial, it will take three to five years to complete a trial that evaluates the effectiveness of this approach. If successful, a FDA-approved cellular treatment for spinal cord injury could be developed and on the market within five to seven years.

This trial is tremendous progress forward given the discovery of the hES cell in 1998. Researchers advanced at an incredible pace while facing political barriers that severely limited federal funding for research. This success is based on a quarter century of progress across many fields. It represents over a billion dollars of investment, largely provided by the National Institutes of Health, and the hard work of millions of American workers.

As a physician working with patients at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute, I witness their unbelievable dedication and perseverance throughout treatment. This trial means much more to my patients, and to all those living with spinal cord injury, than one single treatment option. It represents hope and the indication of near-term treatments. It is the tip of the iceberg. During the next five years, we can expect that many strategies for repairing the central nervous system will come to a similar stage of human testing.

Although this trial is evaluating transplantation of hES cells, the greatest effect of these cells will not be as a direct treatment. It will be from the use of hES cells as a scientific tool of discovery, accelerating progress across multiple fields and leading to effective repair and recovery. The human genome sequencing project is similar to the tools offered by hES cells, and like the human genome project, hES cell tools will change our world.

What we collectively decide today will affect our children and generations to come. This is an awesome responsibility, and one that requires risk and investment. The primary risk is of the unknown, and this is not new or unique to hES cell technology. Remember the similar fears surrounding the idea of sequencing the human genome? Imagine where we would be today if we made the wrong decision out of fear or from personal ethics?

We must not fear knowledge. We must be decisive and clear in purpose and allow science to benefit from all of its tools.

Learn more about Dr. John McDonald's work at www.spinalcordrecovery.org.


Filed under: 2010 Year in Review • Stem Cells

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. John

    Embryonic stem cells are great. But the only problem I have with it is that it terminates would-be children (if successful birth). I think they should use the ones they already have to further study. But isn't adult stem cells just as good as these? I don't fear scientific study or greater knowledge. I just believe in the goodness of life.

    December 30, 2010 at 22:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katsrule

      Seriously people, how many times they have to explain: embryonic stem cells come from the surplus of In-Vitro treatments. Those embryos were going to be put in a red bin and cremated, but instead they are being used for very important research. I find it ironic that most people that are so against stem cell research likely have no problems whatsoever with an infertile couple trying IVF to treat their infertility, which always results in extra, non viable (ie DEAD) embryos.

      December 30, 2010 at 23:49 | Report abuse |
    • Aezel

      Well John, you are misinformed. It is too bad that you have chosen to listen to the propaganda from the right wing religious nutcases instead of actually investigating where embryonic stem cells are obtained from.

      They come primarily from couples that have gone through the in vitro fertilization process. In this process, they must fertilize many more embryos than they will likely need. When they get a successful embryo, and the couple has a child, the rest of the embryos are usually signed over once the couple feels they will not need them.

      At this point one of two things happens: #1: The embryos are disposed of as medical waste. We are talking about a single cell here. #2: They are harvested for stem cells.

      At NO POINT WHATSOEVER do these left over embryos EVER have a chance to grow into a fully developed child. They can be thrown out, or used for research, but they are NOT going to become a human, and never had a chance to.

      Close minded idiocy on the part of the right wing is essentially killing people that would have had a chance to live every single day in this country. The right wing are the largest group of publicly endorsed murderers that have ever walked the ground in America.

      December 30, 2010 at 23:51 | Report abuse |
    • John

      I did mention to use the left overs... And I don't listen to Sarah. Rush or any other right wingers. I'm misinformed, so please enlighten me.

      December 31, 2010 at 01:27 | Report abuse |
    • Ben G.

      You believe/don't believe what you are told. Just as I do. The applied 99% remainder is left to politics.

      December 31, 2010 at 14:56 | Report abuse |
    • tortilla

      if they werent being used for stem cell research, they would be THROWN AWAY.

      January 1, 2011 at 19:43 | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      John,

      A couple of things – firstly I'm not sure why people are so angry at you for expressing an opinion, especially as you seem quite open-minded in your post, so I'd ignore them if I were you.

      On the ethics, the point about using stem cells from embryos which are "leftovers" is worth noting, and also that embryos at the stage at which they are destroyed during this research are actually routinely destroyed not just during IVF but by some contraceptive methods, such as the IUD. If you're considering the ethics of IVF, consider that the child who hopefully results from a round of IVF would not exist without the process itself, and the process itself currently necessitates the destruction of several embryos, which could instead be usefully used in stem cell research. Furthermore, in my opinion – and this is just my opinion – a 4-5 day old mass of 50 – 150 mostly undifferentiated cells is not really the same as a human being and I don't think, for ethical purposes, they should be considered the same thing, but I can see why you would differ on that.

      On the technical point of adult stem cells, despite them having similar names, they are very, very different in a number of ways from embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The most obvious difference is that hESCs are able to differentiate into any of the >200 different cell types found in the human body – they are 'pluripotent' – whereas ASCs are not – they are either multi- or unipotent, meaning that they can only differentiate into one or a few different cell types. Researchers are trying to induce ASCs into becoming pluripotent – creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – but these have their own problems, such as currently being less reliable than hESCs, and we don't yet know if those problems will be overcome in short order.

      Hope that helps

      January 2, 2011 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
  2. Tom

    These companies should use Advanced Cell Technology's blastomere cell line, an effective embroyonic stem cell line that does not destroy an embryo.

    December 30, 2010 at 23:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Linda Hennessey Cole

    i have severe low back problems to the point that i can hardly get around....like today. i exercise gently and eat lightly, but u already know that the constriction in the low back causes extreme swelling in the abdomen and legs. this is so painful, and having had an MRI last year when i was in a nursing home for post-cancer issues (and my back went out and i was paralized for 32 days), i know my back is a mess and then recently having experienced two falls, one of which wrenched my back so badly that i could not move for days. i have only driven 3 times and cannot take my short brisk walks. i will seek temporary relief thru my DR but am seriously interested in the stem cell cures available. Please contact me, i have a life to live and can hardly get around. lhcole

    December 31, 2010 at 00:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. sal

    Well said......So true, we should not be afraid of progress or change. Medical science (regenerative medicine) is a wonderful field and the scientists, doctors, nurses and researchers that study (many for a life time) dedicate so much of their time trying to improve the science making it better. We as a people should not get complacent, we should be aggressive, bold and move forward. Let's not let fear guide us, let's embrace knowledge and use it as a tool to improving life.

    December 31, 2010 at 09:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tortilla

      well i think it mostly depends on where you live
      definetely try to find the most noteworthy, maybe ones that were ever mentioned on tv like sixty minutes
      heres one though
      http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/stemcellresearch/futureclinicaltrials.html
      i hope you find what your looking for

      January 1, 2011 at 19:49 | Report abuse |
  5. Jon Loren

    Go to http://www.GERON.com for HELP

    December 31, 2010 at 10:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Brenda hallman

    Human stem cell injections have been going on in south America and China for years. Are you using what they already know? Otherwise it seems everyone is reinventing the wheel.

    December 31, 2010 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Nancy

    I feel that the US is so far behind actually curing someone with embryonic stem cells. Is it because we don't want to cure! That would take billions out of the pharmaceutical companies hands not to mention the FDA would love to close this stuff down. But the fact remains is that China and other countries are strides ahead of us when it comes to curing with embryonic stem cells with not relapse!! I would love to have the money to be able to go to China and have a stem cell transplantation. I keep getting worse by the year. Neurological problems! Here;s hoping our children will have this available for them!!

    January 1, 2011 at 00:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • notmyrealname

      This silly conspiracy theory is so ridiculous I can't even believe someone is crazy enough to put it in writing. I hope there are some embryonic stem cell treatments for you, Nancy. The FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are in no way opposed to ESC treatments. The opposition to them comes from religious groups and conservatives in government. Get a clue, dear.

      January 1, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse |
    • Anna

      Im with u. If they want to try more on ppl i am a willing canidate. Tierd of being jack up!!!!!!!!!!!

      January 7, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse |
  8. linda d

    This would be so wonderful if those with spinal cord injuries could have the opportunity for partial or full recovery.
    This is the kind of medical that changes not only one life...but the many lives of those that care and assist the patient.
    Five years is so long.. I pray that the results are so beneficial that this happens soon that 5 years.

    January 1, 2011 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      nice to know there are ppl that feel the same way!

      January 7, 2011 at 16:47 | Report abuse |
  9. Melissa Bogue

    Dr. McDonald is a knowledgeable and trustworthy physician. He provided good medical service at Barnes-Jewish hospital in St. Louis years ago. I and hundreds of thousands of people (between those with spinal cord injury, Parkinson's, MS and other diseases and injuries) are waiting for cures. It's not easy on this side. Thank you to everyone who supports it.

    January 7, 2011 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      Wow thats close to me. How do I get on the list. Right side is a mess.

      January 7, 2011 at 16:51 | Report abuse |
  10. Johny from Poland

    Hey people I'm Johnny from Poland, 4 months ago I had an accident on a motorcycle, I have a damaged spinal cord. I'm looking for any opportunity to include stem cells. Please for any news about the information on this topic. My email address is janek___neo@o2.pl

    January 15, 2011 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.