There has been little hope that a severely damaged spinal cord can be fixed. For patients such as actor Christopher Reeve, a cure did not come in time.
Researchers at a small hospital in Atlanta, Georgia have injected the first patient with embryonic stem cells.
The next patient might receive the experimental treatment right here in Chicago.
Almost one year ago, Kankakee County Sheriff's Deputy David Stukenborg's life was shattered, along with his spine.
"Catastrophic blow out," said Stukenborg, describing the auto accident that paralyzed him. "You could hear the tire explode, and the car flipped multiple times."
Stukenborg was on his way to a 911 call when his tire blew. The call turned out to be a prank.
"I broke C5, shattered C6, and broke C7," said Stukenborg, referring to the vertebrae involved in his injury.
With the help of a robot at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Stukenborg is working to regain some movement.
He has an incomplete spinal cord injury, which means his cord was not severed.
Researchers hope to enroll patients with injuries like Stukenborg's in a landmark trial. The ultimate goal is to see if embryonic stem cells can reverse damage. The first phase is to determine if the procedure is safe.
Northwestern Medicine in Chicago will play a role
"This is first and foremost a safety study: to prove that it can safely be done in humans," said Northwestern Medicine neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Fessler.
For years, scientists have been holding out hope that stem cells could repair damaged spinal cords by helping to regenerate damaged nerves.
The cells are obtained from human embryos no longer needed in in-vitro fertilization procedures.
Extracting the cells destroys the embryo, which is the biggest controversy. Critics say it is the destruction of human life and should not be supported with federal research dollars.
Geron Corporation is the first to get federal approval to use embryonic stem cells to treat people.
Laboratory studies have shown that animals with limited use of their hind legs were able to walk again within weeks of being injected.
"The biggest misconception probably is that it's going to be a magic bullet, that we are going to do one experiment, we're going to cure paralysis, and that everything will be wonderful," said Fessler. "That's not the case."
Patients must meet very specific criteria. The injury has to be located in the thoracic spine between T-3 and T-10. The cord can not be severed, and the injury must be recent, happening within the last 11 days.
Therefore, as unnerving as it sounds, the next possible participant in the trial probably has not been injured yet.
Even though this phase is just to measure safety, doctors will still look for signs of unusual improvement.
"To try to differentiate what is natural recovery and what is coming from this intervention," said RIC rehabilitation physician Dr. David Chen, describing the goal of the process.
Stukenborg does not qualify for this clinical trial, but he says it offers hope for anyone with paralysis.
"Until you have been in a position that's similar to mine, you can't really put a value on it," said Stukenborg. "It's just great."
Up to 10 patients with spinal cord injuries will be enrolled in the study.
As of now, Northwestern does not have a patient for the study, but even though this research is underway, the national debate is far from over.