Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Look at Spinal Cord Injury Treatments from California's Stem Cell Agency

The California stem cell agency today took to the Internet to conduct a nearly hour-long video briefing concerning the state of stem cell treatments for spinal cord injury.

The Google Hangout event featured Jane Lebkowski, president of research and development for Asterias Biotherapeutics of Menlo Park, Ca., which is involved in an early stage clinical trial for a human embryonic stem cell therapy.

The firm is backed by $14.3 million from the stem cell agency. Asterias is carrying forward the Geron spinal cord trial, which that company abandoned for financial reasons. Asterias expects to enroll more patients next year.

She and Kevin Whittlesey, a science officer with the state agency, discussed the multiple stem cell approaches involving spinal injuries that have surfaced since Geron began the first trial with human embryonic stem cells in 2010.

Lebkowski said that first stage of her firm’s trials demonstrated the initial safety of the treatment. She also said it showed some evidence of “preferential restoration” and “prevention of further deterioration.” The patients involved were treated less than a month after their injuries.

Whittlesey gave an overview of other research around the country. He commented on a case in Poland in which one paralyzed man is reportedly now walking with the help of a walker following treatment with cells from his nasal cavity. The cells were extracted by going in through his skull.

Whittlesey said that it is “hard to draw any conclusions from this one patient.” He said the man “enjoyed significant benefit.” However, he said that it is not possible to attribute the benefits entirely to the cell treatment because the experiment was not scientifically controlled.

California’s stem cell agency has put together a healthy portfolio of Webinars, You Tube videos and Google Hangouts involving a wide range of issues. It is all part of its effort to inform the public and spread good news about its $3 billion program.

However, today’s effort demonstrated the difficulty in drawing an audience. Spinal cord injuries affect as many as an estimated 332,000 persons in this country.  Despite promotion online, in the social media and notices in some publications, only 39 persons checked in for today’s Hang Out.

Kevin McCormack, who hosted the event and who is the director of communications for the agency, said that it is pretty much the pattern for these sort of events. The payoff, he said, is the 1,000 or more viewers that are picked up as people go to You Tube to view the video event.   We might add that the information is current, authoritative and useful, although at times a tad technical for non-scientists.

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