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Stem Cell Therapy Restores Movement to Paralyzed Man’s Arms and Hands

Lifting weights is part of Kris Boesen’s regular program of physical therapy.

 
On March 6, 2016, just before Kris Boesen’s 21st birthday, his car skidded across a wet road in Bakersfield, California and slammed into a telephone pole. He broke bones in his neck and suffered a traumatic injury to his cervical spine that left him paralyzed from the neck down. However, thanks to a bit of luck and timing, he qualified for a current clinical trial conducted as a partnership between Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center and Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), headed up by Charles Liu, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center. Today, Kris can move his arms and hands, operate his motorized wheelchair, breathe on his own—and even feel some sensation below the waist.

In April, just five weeks after his accident, researchers injected an experimental dose of 10 million AST-OPC1 cells into Kris’s cervical spinal cord. These AST-OPC1 cells were developed by Asterias Biotherapeutics, in Fremont, California from embryonic stem cells, which they converted into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) normally found in the brain and spinal cord of healthy bodies.

When a spinal cord injury occurs, Liu tells mental_floss, “The neurons can die, the axons can be severed, or the myelin can be damaged.” These AST-OPC1 cells have been designed to address the myelination and are neuroregenerative—that is, they can restore connections and tissue within the spinal cord, thus potentially restore feeling and movement to the limbs.

“Quite frankly, my expectations were not very high,” Liu says. “People have been talking about regenerative medicine for a while now, but in the nervous system we haven’t had a whole lot of success.”

Charles Liu, director of the Neurorestoration Center at the University of California

Kris has what is known as a grade A injury on the ASIA scale (American Spinal Injury Association). This means he couldn’t move anything more than the smallest shrug of the shoulders at the neck line, and nothing from the neck down. Rodney Boesen, Kris’s father, tells mental_floss that he recalls Liu saying he hoped that at most Kris might be able to move from a grade A injury to a grade B, which means he'd regain some feeling below the neck. “The real key word there was hope,” says Rodney.

Six weeks after the stem cell therapy, Kris left the hospital. And now, just five months after the treatment, hope has become a reality: Kris has surpassed everyone’s expectations and “moved up two additional motor levels,” says Liu, which he calls “extremely significant," adding, “Think of all these patients that are quadriplegic: they’re basically not able to move their arms or legs. Now you can turn them into patients who can actually brush their teeth and do stuff for themselves.”

Indeed, Kris can now do most everything with his hands and arms that someone without a spinal cord injury can do: brush his teeth, feed himself, write his name, text his girlfriend, and even lift weights, which is an important part of his physical therapy.

Liu says Kris’s improvement “is very atypical in natural improvement or just rehabilitation alone. He had no improvement at all until he got the cells,” he says. He expects Kris will continue to improve.

Kris Boesen and his father, Rodney 

Even more encouraging, says Kris’s father, “There’s sensation going on below his waist.” This is how his doctors realized recently that he had a bladder infection; Kris could feel it. Most people with spinal cord injuries of his kind wouldn’t be able to. Moreover, Rodney says, “The stem cells have given him back a lot of functions,” including breathing without a ventilator, coughing, and even sweating. Sweating, which most people take for granted (and don't especially enjoy), is a process that most para- and quadriplegics can no longer do, as it requires the spinal cord to send signals to the sweat glands. This is another promising sign that Kris’s treatment has had a regenerative effect.

He has also had involuntary movement in his feet and some sensation returning in his knees and thighs. “The nurses noticed when you touch his legs that they’re warm," Rodney says. "They told me that it’s unusual for people with his injury to have warm legs because they have such a problem regulating their body temperature."

Rodney credits Liu for “moving heaven and Earth” to get Kris into the trial.

Liu is encouraged by Kris’s results and feels that the new "biological engineering" technologies emerging to treat spinal cord injuries— such as cell transplantation, new prosthetics, and brain wave interface processing—will come together to make huge strides “toward restoring function in either a conventional or unconventional way," Liu says. "It’s really exciting.”

Kris was not up for an interview at this time, but in a statement provided by Keck Medicine, he said, “Just because you went through something bad doesn’t mean you have to suffer the rest of your life … now, thankfully with technology, we have some stuff that’s working, and it’s obviously worked for me so far.”

The initial results of this ongoing trial, which includes six patients at six sites across the United States, will be published sometime in September.

All images: Greg Iger/Keck Medicine of USC

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History
How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
iStock
iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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