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

7 Health Tips From Ancient Physicians
Portrait of Galen
Portrait of Galen

If you feel bombarded by conflicting advice on how to stay (or get) healthy, you’re not alone. Intermittent fasting, juice cleanses, and low-carb diets are a few of today’s health trends, but fashionable health advice is nothing new. Consider these health tips from ancient physicians, which range from surprisingly relevant to downright absurd. (Just don't consider any of it actual medical advice, of course—that's what modern physicians are for.)


Galen, a Greek physician who treated Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius among others, wrote hundreds of texts about medicine starting around 150 CE. Galen believed that what you dream about can indicate your overall level of wellness and reveal specific ailments you might be suffering from. Before you call him a quack, keep in mind that he acknowledged that some dreams are simply a random assortment of the day’s events, rather than a direct message about the state of one’s health. As he wrote in On Diagnosis in Dreams:

“The vision-in-sleep [dream], in my opinion, indicates a disposition of the body. Someone dreaming a conflagration is troubled by yellow bile, but if he dreams of smoke, or mist, or deep darkness, by black bile. Rainstorm indicates that cold moisture abounds; snow, ice, and hail, cold phlegm. ... But since in sleep the soul does not produce impressions based on dispositions of the body only, but also from the things habitually done by us day by day, and some from what we have thought—and indeed some things are revealed by it in fashion of prophesy ... the diagnosis of the body from the visions-in-sleep that arise from the body becomes difficult.”


Line engraving of Hippocrates

Greek physician Hippocrates, now known as the father of medicine, wrote several works chock full of health advice. In On Ancient Medicine (written around 400 BCE, although the dates and authorship of the text are somewhat disputed), he explains the wisdom of treading slowly when it comes to making adjustments to your diet. As he explains it, some people are used to eating only one meal per day, while others feel better eating two meals per day. If someone who is accustomed to eating once per day suddenly adds another meal to his schedule, disease can occur.

“But there are certain persons who cannot readily change their diet with impunity; and if they make any alteration in it for one day, or even for a part of a day, are greatly injured thereby. Such persons, provided they take dinner when it is not their wont, immediately become heavy and inactive, both in body and mind, and are weighed down with yawning, slumbering, and thirst; and if they take supper in addition, they are seized with flatulence, tormina [abdominal pain], and diarrhea, and to many this has been the commencement of a serious disease, when they have merely taken twice in a day the same food which they have been in the custom of taking once.”


As Galen explains in the Art of Physick, people with high body heat, red cheeks, and a cheerful disposition have a sanguine complexion. Such people, he argues, are more prone to certain conditions such as fevers and phlegm. Luckily, Galen tells sanguine patients how to achieve an optimal diet and exercise program for their body type. He warns that drinking too much beer, ale, and wine can cause a variety of maladies, including scabs, abscesses, fevers, and red pimples.

“Inordinate drinking of strong beer, ale, and wine, breeds hot rhewms scabs and itch, St. Anthony’s fire [a skin infection], quinsies [an infection behind the tonsils], pleuresies [pain when breathing], inflammations, fevers, and red pimples.”


In On Regimen in Acute Diseases, Hippocrates lays out an easy plan for fighting dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes severe diarrhea. Luckily, no pharmacists are needed for this treatment, but you will have to track down some beans and plant shoots, if you don’t already have them on hand.

“For dysentery. A fourth part of a pound of cleaned beans, and twelve shoots of madder [a Eurasian plant] having been triturated [ground to a fine powder], are to be mixed together and boiled, and given as a linctus [a medicinal syrup] with some fatty substance."


Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus
Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus

Scholars credit Sushruta as one of the earliest surgeons and the author of The Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text written sometime around 600 BCE. The text warns pregnant women to avoid certain activities, such as fasting, falling, and taking medicine that causes vomiting. But some of the guidelines may sound strange to modern readers. According to Sushruta, pregnant women should not ride a horse, swing on a hammock, or sit on uneven ground, lest those activities cause the fetus to prematurely detach from the uterus.

“Sexual intercourse during pregnancy, riding on horseback, etc., or in any sort of conveyance, a long walk, a false step, a fall, pressure on the womb, running, a blow, sitting or lying down on an uneven ground, or in an uneven posture, fasting … use of emetics or purgatives, swinging in a swing or hammock, indigestion, and use of medicines which induce the labor pain or bring about abortions, and such like causes tend to expel the fetus from its fixture. These causes tend to sever the child from the uterine wall with its placental attachment owing to a kind of Abhighatam (uterine contraction) just as a blow tends to sever a fruit from its pedicel.”


Soranus, a Greek physician who worked in Rome around the early 2nd century CE, had plenty to say about menstruation, contraception, and abortion. As he wrote in Gynecology, sneezing can expel semen from a woman’s body and serve as an effective birth control method. Just remember to squat before you start sneezing.

“And during the sexual act, at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round; she might even drink something cold.”


Hippocrates wrote at length about hemorrhoids, and his writings on the subject survive to this day. In On Hemorrhoids (400 BCE), he offers several methods to remove the offending piles. One of his tricks, which entails burning the hemorrhoids with pieces of hot iron, requires the patient to purge the day before. Sounds like fun.

“I recommend seven or eight small pieces of iron to be prepared, a fathom in size, in thickness like a thick specillum [speculum], and bent at the extremity, and a broad piece should be on the extremity, like a small obolus. Having on the preceding day first purged the man with medicine, on the day of the operation apply the cautery. Having laid him on his back, and placed a pillow below the breech, force out the anus as much as possible with the fingers, and make the irons red-hot, and burn the pile until it be dried up, and so as that no part may be left behind. And burn so as to leave none of the hemorrhoids unburnt, for you should burn them all up.”

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]


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