Young man with spinal cord injury regains use of hands and arms after stem cell therapy

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Kris Boesen – Photo courtesy USC

Hope is such a fragile thing. We cling to it in bad times. It offers us a sense that we can bear whatever hardships we are facing today, and that tomorrow will be better.

Kris Boesen knows all about holding on to hope during bad times. On March 6th of this year he was left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident. Kris and his parents were warned the damage might be permanent.

Kris says at that point, life was pretty bleak:

“I couldn’t drink, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t text or pretty much do anything, I was basically just existing. I wasn’t living my life, I was existing.”

For Kris and his family hope came in the form of a stem cell clinical trial, run by Asterias Biotherapeutics and funded by CIRM. The Asterias team had already enrolled three patients in the trial, each of whom had 2 million cells transplanted into their necks, primarily to test for safety. In early April Kris became the first patient in the trial to get a transplant of 10 million stem cells.

Within two weeks he began to show signs of improvement, regaining movement and strength in his arms and hands:

“Now I have grip strength and do things like open a bottle of soda and feed myself. Whereas before I was relying on my parents, now after the stem cell therapy I am able to live my life.”

The therapy involves human embryonic stem cells that have been differentiated, or converted, into cells called oligodendrocyte progenitors. These are capable of becoming the kind of cells which help protect nerve cells in the central nervous system, the area damaged in spinal cord injury.

The surgery was performed by Keck Medicine of USC’s Dr. Charles Liu. In a news release about the procedure, he says improvements of the kind Kris has experienced can make a huge difference in someone’s life:

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Dr. Charles Liu, Keck School of Medicine: Photo courtesy USC

“As of 90 days post-treatment, Kris has gained significant improvement in his motor function, up to two spinal cord levels. 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.”

We blogged about this work as recently as last week, when Asterias announced that the trial had passed two important safety hurdles.  But Kris’ story is the first to suggest this treatment might actually be working.

Randy Mills, CIRM’s President & CEO, says:

 “With each patient treated in this clinical trial we learn.  We gain more experience, all of which helps us put into better context the significance of this type of event for all people afflicted with debilitating spinal cord injuries. But let us not lose sight of the individual here.  While each participant in a clinical trial is part of the group, for them success is binary.  They either improve or they do not.  Kris bravely and selflessly volunteered for this clinical trial so that others may benefit from what we learn.  So it is fitting that today we celebrate Kris’ improvements and stop to thank all those participating in clinical trials for their selfless efforts.”

For patient advocates like Roman Reed, this was a moment to celebrate. Roman has been championing stem cell research for years and through his Roman Reed Foundation helped lay the groundwork for the research that led to this clinical trial:

This is clear affirmative affirmation that we are making Medical History!  We were able to give a paralyzed quadriplegic patient back the use of his hands! With only half a clinical dosage. Now this person may hold and grasp his loved ones hands in his own hands because of the actions of our last two decades for medical research for paralysis CURE! CARPE DIEM!”

It’s not unheard of for people with the kind of injury Kris had to make a partial recovery, to regain some use of their arms and hands, so it’s impossible to know right now if the stem cell transplant was the deciding factor.

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Kris at home: photo courtesy USC

Kris’ dad, Rodney, says he doesn’t care how it happened, he’s just delighted it did:

“He’s going to have a life, even if (the progress) stops just this second, and this is what he has, he’s going to have a better life than he would have definitely had before, because there are so many things that this opens up the world for him, he’s going to be able to use his hands.”


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20 thoughts on “Young man with spinal cord injury regains use of hands and arms after stem cell therapy

    • I am so sorry to hear about your accident and your children. Right now this approach is only for patients with very recent accidents who have an injury at the C5-C7 level, but we hope that if it is successful they may be able to expand the number of people it is available to and the number of conditions it is helpful for. That may be some years away but yesterday’s news from USC is an encouraging sign. – Yours truly, Kevin McCormack

  1. Good afternoon ,

    My name is Kelli, my 26 year old cousin was in a diving accident on June 10, 2016 he is currently at Kessler rehabilitation center in NJ . Jimmy was left paralyzed from the neck down c4/c5. It would be such a miracle if he could have this opportunity . When do you anticipate this being available to others with spinal injuries? Our hearts are broken that Jimmy went from being so independent to being so wheelchair/ bed bound. He has been fighting so hard to regain any functions . God bless this young man who was given such a blessing . I pray that Jimmy will get the same opportunity in the near future . Thank you kelli Healey

    • The plan is for Asterias to first test and show it is safe and works in this particular group of patients. Then, if that clinical trial is successful, to expand the number of people who can try it including someone with an older injury.

  2. I have scapulo humeral MD (atrophy of my quadriceps and shoulder neck area. standing and walking is very difficult and using my arms and shoulders is very painful. Do you think this treatment could help me?

    • I don’t know Ray but hopefully some of the other research being done around the US, indeed around the world, may one day be of help.

  3. Hi there, I am quadriplegic and I have my accident in 2011 C3/4 compete, and I am nearly 50 years old now, just wondering when we’d be available to the public, can I would be a candidate for older injury, I have the fund put aside for this treatment, thank you

    • I hear you buddy.I’m a 49-year-old C4-5 and I’ve been injured for 25 years this past August. Currently, I am unable to use anything below my shoulders. I have trace motor in my right bicep, nothing functional. To be frank about the situation, I can’t imagine anything more agonizing than not being able to hug my wife or family members. I need help with all aspects of my daily life with the exception of being rather adept at operating my computer using only my head.

      No matter how hard I try to evolve as a spiritual being trapped in this useless body, my depression is deep-seated and a vicious battle I have to fight every day regardless of how tired or defeated I may feel. Emotional and spiritual tumult make me feel heavier and unable to motivate these days. My frequent thoughts of suicide are futile, ironically due to my condition. Although these thoughts are fleeting and occur only at my deepest darkest, it’s reality.

      Honestly, I hope I live long enough to be able to benefit from what ever procedures may materialize in the future. For me and for everyone suffering from spinal cord injury.

  4. Thanks for this reporting, Kevin. I’m curious about plans for chronics; you say that if things work out they’ll be testing in people with older injuries. Can I ask if someone at Asterias said that? I’ve looked through their website and can’t find it there. It would be great news.

    • Right now Asterias is focused on this trial, making this approach work for this group of patients. Over the years there have been more than enough accusations of letting the hope and hype get ahead of the science so now everyone is much more cautious, which is why Asterias, or indeed any other company, is not going to speculate on long term, aspirational goals. They are focused on the present. But I think it’s clear that all of us want to make this current treatment work now, and then build on that to help people with older injuries. – kevin

  5. Hi, I have brachial plexus which has basically left my hand paralyzed. I also have muscle atrophy due to not being able to use my fingers and hand. Are there any studies on treating brachial plexus????

    • Dear Val, I am sorry to hear about your condition, that must make life rather difficult. I did an online search for stem cell therapies for brachial plexus but didn’t find anything. I also looked at some of the brachial plexus support group discussion forums and while the question was raised there no one knew of any clinical trials or approved therapies that were available.

      Sorry I can’t be of more use but hopefully in the coming years researchers will come up with an effective therapy.

  6. This raises red flags.

    The statement toward the bottom of the article is most telling.

    “It’s not unheard of for people with the kind of injury Kris had to make a partial recovery, to regain some use of their arms and hands, so it’s impossible to know right now if the stem cell transplant was the deciding factor.”

    In fact, with aggressive therapy, many of us regained a noticeable amount of functionality in the months following our injury.

    The true test of stem cells is in those post-recovery years.

    This is where the trials have shown shaky if any success.

    I do applaud the energy and efforts toward spinal cord rejuvenation, but also caution folks who see these stories and are unaware of the many differences that make eliminating outliers and coming to conclusive results on the efficacy of stem cells (embryonic, patient-harvested, or donor) in stimulating the regeneration of the neural network.

  7. My name is Lee Cook, and my injury is
    C-6,C-7. It happened September 1, 2013.
    I’ve had surgery at Duke Hospital in North Carolina and rehab at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I would like to see if I qualify for the surgery.

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