Page last updated at 18:23 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The patients who stand to benefit

A major shift in policy on stem cell research is widely tipped when Barack Obama takes office.

He is expected to lift restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh visited patients at the Veterans hospital at Palo Alto in California which has large a spinal injury unit.

Pat Harris
Pat was left paralysed after a motorbike accident

Pat Harris bounces a beach ball from him to a therapist.

He has been having this sort of physical treatment for years, aimed at improving his coordination and maximising what movement he has.

Pat is paralysed below the chest - the result of a motorbike accident in 2003.

"The hope for me before I die is to walk again and stem cells give me that hope."

That is a sentiment shared by many of the patients.

Scott Souza was also paralysed from the chest down in a motorbike accident and spent more than eight months in hospital.

"I have no real grip in my hands that makes things really difficult.

"I don't expect to be running around and doing sports but my goal is to be independent as a result of stem cells."


Roman Reed has been in a wheelchair since for fourteen years. He was injured in a college American football game at the age of 19.

Unlike Mr Harris and Mr Souza he is not a military veteran.

But he is one of the most active patient advocates for stem cell research in California, helping to raise millions of dollars.

His own donated tissue - a small skin graft from behind one ear - is being used to try to create a line of stem cells.

"Stem cells give me hope that one day I will get out of this chair and walk and hold my son high.

"I know one day stem cells will give us a cure for the suffering and the debilitating diseases we suffer in America."

Professor Graham Creasey
It's important that we don't have false hopes but there is real promise
Graham Creasey, of Standford University

Dennis de Gray was the most recent to have been injured.

In October 2007 he slipped in the rain as he was putting out the rubbish.

"I've got to come up with a better story," he jokes.

Mr de Gray is the most severely paralysed of the group. He has no movement below the neck and uses a straw in his mouth to control his electric wheelchair.

He is another fund-raiser for stem cell research: "I want to put something back to help the community" he says.

All of the four hold out hope that stem cells may help their condition.

The first clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells could begin later this year if it gets final safety approval from the authorities.

Geron, a biotech company, hopes to inject the cells direct into the spinal injury of newly-paralysed patients.

None of these four men will qualify for that initial trial but they could if it proves successful.


The initial study will primarily test whether the treatment is safe. Animal studies were very positive - rats who had been paralysed regained some movement when injected with stem cells.

Geron has created so-called glial cells which cover the nerves in the spinal cord. They function like the coating on electrical wire. These are destroyed during injury causing the nerves to short circuit.

The theory is that by injecting glial cells into the spinal cord of newly paralysed patients, it might give paralysed patients some improvement in function.

Stanford University spinal cord injury expert Graham Creasey, a British doctor who has worked in the US for many years, is optimistic that stem cell research will be stepped up under a Barack Obama presidency.

Veteran's Hospital, Palo Alto California
Patients at the hospital want to see restrictions lifted

He is more cautious than his patients, but nonetheless believes stem cells will lead to effective treatments.

"Throughout all of recorded history a broken neck or back has led to permanent paralysis and there's now hope that we may be able to improve that - perhaps not complete cures right away - but improve some function, and that's what really matters.

"It's important that we don't have false hopes but there is real promise."

Professor Creasey believes spinal cord injury is a very good model for stem cell research.

"It's more like mending a cable than mending a computer, and if you were to see improvement in patients who had been paralysed for years, then you'd know pretty well that it was a result of the treatment."

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