He later found out that he was a candidate to enter a clinincal trial investigating stem cell therapy for paralyzed people.
Charles Liu, MD, PhD, of the Keck Shool of Medicine and director of the USC Neurorestoration Center, injected an experimental dose of 10 million AST-OPC1 cells directly into Kris’ cervical spinal cord in early April.
“Typically, spinal cord injury patients undergo surgery that stabilizes the spine but generally does very little to restore motor or sensory function,” Dr. Liu said. “With this study, we are testing a procedure that may improve neurological function, which could mean the difference between being permanently paralyzed and being able to use one’s arms and hands. Restoring that level of function could significantly improve the daily lives of patients with severe spinal injuries.”
Within two weeks, Kris noticed some improvement and by three months he was able to feed himself, use his smartphone and operate a motorized wheelchair.
“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels,” Dr. Liu added. “In Kris’ case, two spinal cord levels means the difference between using your hands to brush your teeth, operate a computer or do other things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, so having this level of functional independence cannot be overstated.”
Doctors are careful not to predict how much funtion Kris may regain, and Kris has realistic expectations, saying, “All I’ve wanted from the beginning was a fighting chance,” said Kris, who has a passion for fixing up and driving sports cars and was studying to become a life insurance broker at the time of the accident. “But if there’s a chance for me to walk again, then heck yeah! I want to do anything possible to do that.”
The stem cell procedure Kris received is part of a Phase 1/2a clinical trial that is evaluating the safety and efficacy of escalating doses of AST-OPC1 cells developed by Fremont, California-based Asterias Biotherapeutics. AST-OPC1 cells are made from embryonic stem cells by carefully converting them into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs), which are cells found in the brain and spinal cord that support the healthy functioning of nerve cells. In previous laboratory studies, AST-OPC1 was shown to produce neurotrophic factors, stimulate vascularization and induce remyelination of denuded axons. All are critical factors in the survival, regrowth and conduction of nerve impulses through axons at the injury site, according to Edward D. Wirth III, MD, PhD, chief medical director of Asterias and lead investigator of the study, dubbed “SCiStar.”