Stem-Cell Test Restored Motion to Paralyzed Mice
By Wall Street Journal staff reporters Scott Hensley, Antonio Regalado and Laurie McGinley

07/25/2001
The Wall Street Journal
A3
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

In a powerful demonstration that human embryonic stem cells may treat intractable disease, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University has restored motion to paralyzed rodents by implanting the controversial cells into their spinal cords.
The unpublished work was concluded this spring and involved 120 mice and rats suffering from a condition similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. A dramatic video clip of the partially cured mice, which has been showed to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and to Sen. Pete Domenici (R., N.M.), may have an impact on the debate over stem-cell funding in Washington.
John D. Gearhart, a Johns Hopkins professor who participated in the research, said the experiment proves that embryonic stem cells can be used to treat diseases in which nerve cells have been damaged and don't normally heal or regrow.The work received no federal research funding. Instead, financial support came from Project ALS, a New York-based philanthropic organization dedicated to finding a cure for ALS, a progressively fatal paralysis.
Critics of embryonic stem-cell research have argued the work hasn't yielded breakthroughs that scientists have promised. But this work, Dr. Gearhart said, shows that stem-cell research has moved beyond "potential" to meaningful results. "Every animal that has received human cells has recovered," Dr. Gearhart said at the Jackson Laboratory, a genetics research institute in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Dr. Gearhart planned last night to show the video of the treated mice and rats to more than 200 scientists and doctors attending a genetics meeting in Bar Harbor.
In the experiment, a team led by Johns Hopkins neurologist Douglas Kerr infected the rodents with a virus that destroyed nerve cells in their spinal cords that control the muscles used for movement. The team then infused a solution containing human stem cells into the spinal fluid of the paralyzed rodents.
The human cells then migrated to the area of the spinal cord destroyed by the virus. The implanted cells grew as nerve cells and also released proteins that spurred the regeneration of normal rodent nerve cells in the animals.
"The majority of the animals recover some function," said Dr. Kerr, who sought to moderate Dr. Gearheart's more enthusiastic description of the results. "They are not normal, but they can begin to move their hind limbs under them, and some can bear weight."
Late last year, Dr. Kerr and Dr. Gearhart presented related data on mice that had been treated with mouse stem cells.
The primitive human stem cells used in this experiment were isolated by Dr. Gearhart from five-week-old to nine-week-old human fetuses that had been electively aborted. Other scientists have found stem cells in one-week-old human embryos. The cells have similar properties -- scientists say they can form any other type of tissue.
Dr. Kerr says the Hopkins team is eager to test the process in humans, since ALS is currently incurable and typically causes death within two to six years. "We all see patients, and we are seeing them die," said Dr. Kerr. "We are being cautiously aggressive. We want to advance to the clinic as fast as possible." He predicted the first human tests of the stem-cell treatment might occur within three years.
Although the research was privately financed, Dr. Kerr says that if the Bush administration decides to forbid federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research it would be a "potentially fatal blow" to the ALS project, which might be forced to move off campus. He and other research advocates hope the video clip of the treated mice could influence the decision.
Michael Manganiello, a vice president of government affairs for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, said he showed the video clip to Secretary Thompson earlier this month. Mr. Manganiello was accompanied by Dr. Kerr and Cody Unser, who has been paralyzed since 1999, when she contracted a rare condition called transverse myelitis. Ms. Unser, of Albuquerque, N.M., is the 14-year-old daughter of race car champion Al Unser Jr.
The same day, the group showed the video to Sen. Domenici, who hasn't taken a position on whether the federal government should fund embryonic stem-cell research.
The real battleground on the issue remains the White House, where President Bush hasn't yet announced a decision. "I wish the president would see this tape. When you see a rat going from dragging his hind legs to walking, it's not that big a leap to look at Cody, or Christopher Reeve, and think how this might help them," says Mr. Manganiello.