Friday, August 17, 2018

A California Stem Cell Tale: The Search for a Treatment for Paralyzing Spinal Injuries

Ed Wirth of Asterias, photo by Gabrielle Luri, SF Chronicle 
The San Francisco Chronicle, in a lengthy and dramatic article this week, reported on the story of the first clinical trial in the United States for a human embryonic stem cell treatment, a tale that continues today and well into the years ahead. 

The story involves paralyzing spinal injuries, incurable afflictions, walking rats, Geron, Asterias Biotherapeutics and BioTime and the economics of development of a stem cell therapy. That is not to mention the California stem cell agency, which has pumped more than $20 million into the effort.

The story was written by Erin Allday and is the third installment in a series involving stem cell research and treatments, both legitimate and illegitimate.

Her story began like this:
"Amid the controlled chaos of the operating room, Edward Wirth stood to the side, watching the surgeon slice open the back of the young man on the table....
"The surgeon nudged aside skin and a thin layer of muscle and clamped them out of the way. He chipped away bony vertebrae, exposing the shiny, smooth rope of the spinal cord. His scalpel slid into the membrane surrounding it.
"Wirth stepped forward, just beyond the surgeon’s shoulder, close by for these last steps. The surgical team moved a robotic arm holding a syringe into place. It was loaded with millions of immature support cells that had been meticulously crafted from stem cells, the cells that are the foundation of the human body, able to transform and reproduce indefinitely."
Wirth is a scientist who has been involved with the research since its early days at Geron of Menlo Park, Ca.. He has put in more than 20 years on the effort. Asterias Biotherapeutics of Fremont, Ca., which is associated with BioTime of Alameda, is currently handling the effort to create a treatment for spinal cord injuries.

The $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, has provided a total of $20.7 million for the effort, first with Geron and now with Asterias.

Allday detailed the ups and downs, financial and scientific, of the research. She peered into the future and wrote that "it will take years to produce a marketable, federally approved therapy -- assuming their research makes it that far."

Nonetheless, she reported,
"Clinical trials like the one run by Asterias are scientists’ most ambitious attempts to harness the potential of what remains an elusive medical marvel. And the work at Asterias exemplifies both the incredible progress that’s been made in stem cell research and the great distance the field has yet to go before life-changing therapies are widely available.
"Riding on Asterias’ success isn’t just the fate of a single company or the careers of scientists like Wirth. Potentially, tens of thousands of patients every year could benefit directly from its therapy — and millions more if its research leads to further advances."
The fourth and final article in the Chronicle series is now scheduled to appear on Sept. 6  and will take a look at the California stem cell agency.

1 comment:

  1. Jeanne Loring11:39 AM

    Erin is a terrific reporter, and it's worth listening to her on NPR's 1A from a couple of weeks ago.
    Erin Allday, Leigh Turner, Victor Ibrahim...and me.


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