Stem cell therapy trial helps those with restrictive injuries

In March, 21-year-old Kris Boesen was driving on a wet road in Maricopa, Calif., when his car suddenly fishtailed out of control into a tree and a telephone pole. As a result of the accident, Boesen broke his neck, was no longer able to walk and could only move his left arm up and down. Both of his hands were stuck in a clenched position.

Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center, operated on Kris Boesen (above), who has a spinal cord injury, by using stem cells to repair and replace damaged tissue. Photo from USC News.

“I was barely existing,” Boesen told the USC Keck School of Medicine News. “I wasn’t really living my life.”

In early April, Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center, performed a procedure on Boesen, who has been affected by severe spinal cord injuries, to help him gain independence.

Liu’s procedure is part of a clinical trial aimed at improving the lives of patients with similar conditions as Boesen’s. The trial, which is taking place at five other clinical sites, is sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine through Asterias Biotherapeutics.

The operation Liu outlined for Boesen used stem cells, or “blank slate” cells that can help repair or replace damaged tissue. Keck said these cells have the potential to become multiple types of cells.

According to the news release, nearly 100 scientists, doctors and engineers are part of the USC Stem Cell Initiative, which investigates different therapies and applications involving stem cells. USC researchers have received millions of dollars in grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

“This is to bring people together who are working in the area of stem cells,” Andy McMahon, who leads one of the labs within the initiative, told the Keck School of Medicine.

However, despite the amount of effort put into researching the effects of stem cells, Liu said there are dangers in stem cell therapy. He told Boesen’s family that Boesen could lose the remaining arm movement he had before the treatment. Stem cell therapy can also result in the formation of a tumor.

After weeks on a ventilator, Boesen consented to the treatment.

A month after his accident, Liu and a team of surgeons operated on the back of Boesen’s neck at the Keck Medical Center of USC. They stopped his breathing in order to prevent his lungs from moving his spinal cord during respiration, and injected 10 million stem cells into the tough membrane surrounding his spinal cord.

Soon, Boesen regained some motor skills. He could lift weights, write his name, operate a motorized wheelchair and independently feed himself. Currently, Boesen is back at home and hopes to return to a more independent life.

According to the news release, Boesen is a special case among thousands of patients who suffer from paralytic conditions. His recovery is significantly different from those of other patients who receive similar treatments, according to Liu. Although the treatment is unlikely to allow Boesen to walk again, his arm movement can be improved significantly.

“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the stem cells,” Boesen told the Keck School of Medicine’s news site.

According to the release, USC researchers are looking to expand research and double the dosage of stem cells involved in the treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries. USC has already considered clinical trials exploring stem cell-based treatments for HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, the dry form of age-related macular degeneration, osteoarthritis in the knee and immune system damage due to chemotherapy.

“Because the therapies would replace damaged tissue with new, healthy tissue, treatments would provide true cures,” McMahon said.