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Stem Cells for ALS: Inside a Clinical Trial

ALS Patient Volunteers for Stem Cell Transplants Into Spinal Cord

Will Stem Cells Help ALS? continued...

Over the next hours, with the dance beats of Beyonce and Black Eyed Peas booming from Boulis' playlist, the surgeons will wire Jerome's spine back together, inserting screws and plates to hold it secure. Then they'll close the wound, leaving behind those five stem cell infusions.

"There is fairly good data that these cells integrate into the rat spine and regenerate motor nerve cells. Does this happen in humans? I don't know," Glass says. "We've done four autopsies in the trial so far. We are having a lot of trouble finding the cells or finding where they are reconnecting nerves."

On the other hand, these were among the sickest patients in the trial. And there's some early clinical evidence that gives Glass, Feldman, and Boulis "cautious optimism" that the treatments have slowed ALS progression in at least one patient.

Glass is careful not to raise false hopes. But he's already had to turn down many ALS patients who did not meet the strict entry criteria for the clinical trial.

"Some people get mad; some have offered lots of money. But if we don't stick to our protocol, we will never know if it works or not," he says. "My goal is to find new treatments for ALS. If it is not stem cells, fine. I will find something else. Something that works."

Glass admits that he has his bad days.

"One thing I don't do is go to funerals. I can't," he says. "These people become very close to you, and their families become very close to you. I lose too many."

Jerome knows that what he's suffered in this clinical trial may ultimately do him no good. 

"I'm not a hero," he objects. "Anybody with ALS would do it, 99 out of 100 of us. I am not a hero. I'm just trying to move science forward."

A month after the surgery, Jerome says that he may be seeing one area of improvement in his ALS. 

"Maybe my speech might be a little bit better. I can say some words easier than I did before. My wife, Donna, thinks so and one of the nurses at Emory even mentioned it," Jerome says. "But they won't know if the stem cells survived and did anything until I die and they do an autopsy."

Jerome laughs. "I'm hoping that's maybe 30 years from now."

Reviewed on July 17, 2012

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