Dr. Richard Fessler has spent much of his 30-year career as a neurosurgeon treating patient with spinal cord injuries. He has always aspired to be a healer, even a miracle worker. But it was just a year and a half ago he experienced his biggest breakthrough moment.
He led a 12-month study at Rush University Medical Center that involved injecting a new regenerative stem cell therapy for people paralyzed by cervical spinal cord injuries. Of the six patients who participated, all regained some upper-body movement. Four got two levels of movement back and one patient got three levels back. So a patient who could only shrug his shoulders before the procedure is using his hands to eat, write, and do other tasks.
"These are tremendously exciting results," Fessler says. "It was the first time in recorded history we made progress in reversing spinal cord injury. This is really the first step. But I learned it is possible that some day we will have a cure for paralysis."
It was the first time in recorded history we made progress in reversing spinal cord injury.
Rush was one of nine medical centers across the country studying this new therapy. Patients received an injection of 10 million cells in a fluid drop near the spinal cord injury. The cells, engineered by San Francisco Bay-area biotech Asterias Biotherapeutics, were derived from stem cells—the basic building blocks of all human cells.
Created in the lab, the cells can enable the body to reproduce new spinal cord cells, liver cells, heart cells, and so on, offering scientists a key to regenerate diseased and injured parts of the human body.
Fessler says the Asterias AST OPC1 cells make a protein coating, myelin, missing in damaged spinal cord cells. Once injected into the patient, the cells only have to grow 1 to 2 cm before the nerve regains enough functionality to improve the quality of life of the individual.
One Rush patient in the trial was Illinois native Chris Block, an athletic young mechanical engineer. He was working in Indiana after graduating from Virginia Tech in mechanical engineering when a bicycling accident changed his life on July 23, 2016. Block sustained a spinal cord injury to his C5 vertebra that left him paralyzed. Two weeks later, while lying in a hospital bed in Indianapolis, his doctor mentioned a new stem cell therapy.
"I was immediately very interested in learning more and to be a guinea pig for the program," Block says.
He said the results have boosted not just his movement but his hopes. Before surgery all Block could do was shrug his shoulders and raise his right arm a little bit. After the stem cell injection he was first able to recover feeling in his left arm, then raise his left hand to his face and eventually raise both arms above his head.
"Five to six months after the stem cell injection, I was able to dress the upper half of my body, shower my upper body," Block said.
Fessler, who became involved in spinal cord research 20 years ago at the University of Florida, acknowledges that the new stem cell therapies have a long way to go. But the spectacular results with Block and other patients have raised his hope for a cure.
"For the first time ever we are seeing real positive results," Fessler says. "We are very early in the research. But we are seeing these changes. Normally after a spinal cord injury, you'll see improvement for a month or two and that's it. We're 12 months out, and these patients are still getting better. That’s remarkable."
Buoyed by the results, Fessler opened a new stem cell lab at Rush this spring. He plans to continue working with Asterias and the company’s lead scientist on the AST OPEC1 stem cell line, who was a former colleague from the University of Florida and Rush.
"Physicians like to help patients. That's why we do this. To be able to help someone who never has been able to be helped before...," Fessler says, pausing for the right word to sum up his feelings. Then, he finds it. "Wow!"
Fessler provides more details about the study in a Stem Cell Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury video.
Rush is a William Blair client and Dave Coolidge, vice chairman of William Blair, has been a Rush board member since 1986.