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Stem Cells for ALS: Inside a Clinical Trial

ALS Patient Volunteers for Stem Cell Transplants Into Spinal Cord

Stem Cell Clinical Trial Breaks New Ground continued...

But the motor neurons that control breathing -- the ones ALS patients need in order to survive -- are in the upper spinal cord, in the neck. The next step of the study would be to put stem cells not only in the lower spine, but also in the upper spine. The first three patients to undergo this operation would get the cells only on one side of the upper spinal cord.

Jerome volunteered a second time.

"I think of it being like a soldier who has done one tour of duty re-enlisting for a second tour in order to serve his country," Donna Jerome says.

"Yes, they did tell me about the risk," John Jerome says. "I am not one who is going to go out and raise millions of dollars for research, but I wanted to do something. This is my way of giving back. If it doesn't work for me, maybe they will learn and help others down the road."

Jerome may well benefit. And he might not. This is what researchers call a phase 1 study. The first goal is to demonstrate that the stem cells can be infused with relative safety. Patients will be followed to see whether their disease slows or improves. But only the last three patients in the study will get the full dosage of 10 stem cell infusions on both sides of their upper and lower spinal cords.

Jerome is not in this final stage of the study. He got five infusions on each side of his lower spine and five on one side of his upper spine.

"I don't want to get my hopes up too much. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't want it to work," he says. "It didn't work the first time, and the immunosuppressant drugs gave me a bad time. In the back of my mind I want it to work, but mostly I want to help other people with ALS and further the science."

Will Stem Cells Help ALS?

On the big screens in the operating room, the magnified image reveals delicate threadlike nerves sprouting from the side of Jerome's spinal cord. These are the sensory nerves that bring information about the outside world into the spinal cord and up to the brain.

Deeper down, out of sight, motor nerves emerge from the cord. These are the nerves that Jerome desperately needs to stay alive. These are the nerves the stem cells are supposed to protect.

Boulis moves the needle again and places it in the spinal cord for the fifth and final time. This time it nicks a tiny blood vessel, and there's a small amount of bleeding. That happens in about one in 10 injections, Boulis says. It's a worry, but a small one, and the infusion continues until Glass calls time.

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