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Stem Cell Promise for ALS; Interview with Prudence Mabhena

Aired May 8, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning and welcome. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Welcome to a place where we're going to learn how to live longer and stronger. I'm your doctor and I'm also your coach.

Imagine if a doctor told you this: I'm going do risky spinal surgery. It probably won't do any good. In fact, it could harm you.

That's exactly what this medical pioneer was told. We got it first here on SGMD. We'll show it to you.

And my conversation this week with a star of an Oscar-winning documentary. Her story may inspire you to move beyond any health challenges you have ever had.

And finally, a medical mystery. We've been seeing images like this for the last week now. The Gulf Coast oil spill -- could it possibly impact your health even if you don't live on the water? I'll tell you.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: First up, though, for more than a decade, we've been hearing about the promise stem cells may or may not hold, but they haven't produced a single proven cure backed by solid science so far. But now, the first FDA-approved clinical trial using fetal stem cells in adults with ALS is under way.

I was getting some exclusive access and was able to follow a patient on his incredible journey.


GUPTA (voice-over): John Cornick has a terrible illness for which there is no cure. Can you imagine hearing this from your surgeon?

DR. NICHOLAS BOULIS, EMORY UNIVERSITY NEUROSURGEON: I don't honestly think that this is going to make you better ...


BOULIS: ... which means that the reason that you're doing this is to help other people.


BOULIS: Right?


BOULIS: And, you know, you have all of my admiration and respect for being willing to do this for the greater good.

GUPTA: The greater good. You see, John has volunteered to be one of the first people in the United States to participate in an operation to inject stem cells directly into his spine. It's called a phase one clinical trial. This is the first step. No one knows what will happen.

Here's how John got to this place.

CORNICK: Two years ago, I was running, playing golf.

GUPTA: And then gradually, literally, he began to lose it.

CORNICK: I started tripping and kind of like we thought it was like a foot drop and started catching my foot on bricks and curbs and started losing my balance initially, and then developed a limp in my right leg. I lost the dexterity and can't button buttons, can't tie shoes. I can kick a little bit, but I can't really pick my legs up.

GUPTA: John Cornick has ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It's better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The nerve cells in the spine and brain which control muscle movement destroyed. And when the brain can no longer tell muscles to move, those muscles wither away -- eventually, the diagram as well which pulls and pushes air into the lungs.

Think about that. The brain is fine but you simply cannot breathe.

John knows there is no cure for ALS, and so does his wife, and his two daughters.

CORNICK: My first thoughts were I hated for my girls to see me go through this.

GUPTA (on camera): So, today is a historic day. What we're going to see is the first FDA-approved clinical trial for fetal stem cells in adults. It's remarkable. Obviously, a lot of issues here.

(voice-over): Dr. Eva Feldman developed the trial.

DR. EVA FELDMAN, UNIV. OF MICHIGAN, NEUROLOGIST: When we inject stem cells in the spinal cord, the stem cells surround those large nerve cells and allow those nerve cells to actually become less diseased. In fact, the nerve cells begin to look healthy.

GUPTA (voice-over): So, it's worth pointing out as John is going into the operating room, how important today is. The question they're really trying to answer, though, the most important question at this point is: are these cells safe? Is anything bad going to happen as a result of this operation?

(voice-over): Getting stem cells into John's spinal cord is not easy. It took this surgeon, Dr. Nick Boulis, years to design this special platform to stabilize the needle that delivers the stem cells into the spinal cord. This is a huge breakthrough.

BOULIS: One thing that's critical in my opinion is the injection be done in a very slow and controlled fashion.

GUPTA: The entire operation would last four and a half hours. John is getting five injections, each one about 10 microliters of stem cells -- tiny, tiny drops.

BOULIS: That's it. We're done.

GUPTA: A week after the operation, John says he's feeling amazingly well.

(on camera): Psychologically, I mean, just knowing you have the stem cells now in your body, in your spinal cord, how about that mentally? How are you feeling?

CORNICK: Again, I don't know what to expect. And I don't feel like there's anything going on in my body that's, you know, transforming anything. You just don't feel any effects from them. But I do feel like I'm gaining strength every day.

I get to the point that I can physically take my shirt off myself, I'm fighting for those little battles to win those little battles psychologically. And the more of those I win, the better I'm going to feel about it and going to say, these doggone things are working. Whether or not -- whether or not it's just my mind over defeating the disease for one day or whether or not it's the stem cells working some magic.


GUPTA: He's just absolutely an amazing guy. And I can tell you, John's progress is going to be closely monitored by researchers at Emory University where that trial was conducted. And full disclosure, I'm on the faculty at Emory, as well.

Now, if John's progress is as promising as two previous participants have been, more patients are going to have this particular procedure. I should point out, as well, interestingly, John's wife, Gina, who you met there, found out about this trial by going to the Internet. And if you want to learn more, you can also go to That's the ALS association.

Now, a massive headache. It's called a thunderclap headache by doctors. One viewer wants to know what causes the pain. And I got an answer in "Ask the Doctor."

And she was the focus of an Oscar-winning documentary. Well, Prudence Mabhena can tell us all about determination and overcoming obstacles. Plus, wait until you hear her voice. She gave us a sneak preview.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

You know, every week at this time, I'm going to be answering your questions. This is your appointment. No waiting. No insurance necessary.

We got a question from Facebook on a story we've been talking about quite a bit, Bret Michaels. This is from Gina. And she writes, "I want to know how or why leaking blood causes so much pain supposedly. When's the mechanism?"

You know, it's interesting. If you remember, Michael said he'd felt like he'd been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. For doctors, for neurosurgeons, we call that a thunderclap headache, for obvious reasons. A lot of times, it can be a clue that an aneurysm has ruptured in the brain.

Gina, and everyone else, take a look over here. If you take the skull, you take the blood vessels and start to zero-in on what might be an aneurysm, this is a blister over here. That's what people are focused on. If it becomes weak, it can rupture, literally spray blood through the brain. That's called a subarachnoid hemorrhage. And the blood is literally getting in to the substance of the brain.

So, to answer your question, Gina, the severe pain in Bret Michaels' case was likely caused by that blood hitting the brain's sensitive covering and that can give a person the worst headache of their live.

You know, we talk a lot on the show about taking personal responsibility for your health and we've got six viewers who are doing just that. We've been following them along and they decided to take on a triathlon in just three months from now. I'm checking in with two members of the Fit Nation who've been training for the past four months to get ready for this challenge.


GUPTA (voice-over): Getting ready for the challenge, Dean Hanan worked out hard -- too hard. He strained his calf.

DEAN HANAN, FIT NATION PARTICIPANT: I'm nervous because I'm seven, almost eight weeks behind. And I have to gun it. I'm going to do a six-mile run after a 20-mile bike after I do a mile swim. I feel like I can't do that now.

Rehabbed that chapter's done. It's time to train. It's time to get in shape, you know? Like my focus is on July.

GUPTA: Linda Fisher-Lewis is also focused on July.

LINDA FISHER-LEWIS, FIT NATION PARTICIPANT: I think a lot of people put faith in me that I'm going to do this, and it would be hard for me to let them down.

GUPTA: When I first met Linda back in January, her biggest fear? Not the 25-mile bike ride or the six-mile run.

(on camera): Are you apprehensive about this?

FISHER-LEWIS: I'm very apprehensive about the Hudson.

GUPTA (voice-over): But now, she says it's time that's her biggest adversary.

FISHER-LEWIS: The race is three to four hours and, eventually, I'm going to be needing to be working out for three or four hours and I'm just finding there's not that much time in the day.

GUPTA: For both Dean and Linda, apprehension and fear are slowly melting -- giving way to determination and focus.

(on camera): We're going to see you at the finish line?

HANAN: Yes, sir.

FISHER-LEWIS: Getting to the finish line is big deal. I could be carrying my bike or dragging a leg.


GUPTA: All right. Dean and Linda, you guys are doing great and I can tell you as well, all of our triathletes got a little surprise. Some advice and lots of inspiration from one of the world's greatest athletes, a little surprise for them and a surprise for you as well. We'll have that for you soon.

Now, if you want to keep following the progress of our Fit Nation challengers, check in at or Lots more information there.

And straight ahead: is your favorite seafood going to be off- limits because of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast? I got the latest on that.

And then considered a curse because of her disability -- discover how one woman's voice and her determination carried her all the way to the Oscars.

Stay with us.



GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

I am very excited about our next guest. Think about this reality -- imagine being born with a disability that can torture muscles; makes you unable to use your legs; eventually, unable to use your arms. Much of your family abandoned you as a small child, considers you really cursed; considers you a burden.

Now, if you're Prudence Mabhena, you rise above all of this. You can singer or songwriter and you become the focus of an Oscar-winning documentary, as well. It's amazing -- truly amazing story and Prudence the star of "Music by Prudence" joins me now from New York.

Thanks so much for joining us.


GUPTA: How is it being in New York? I know you've obviously grown up in Zimbabwe. You've been in New York for a period of time. How is it for you?

MABHENA: Oh, New York is the best place ever.

GUPTA: What are you doing with your time?

MABHENA: It is great. It's great. You know -- well, compared to my country, it's -- whoa. It's so amazing. You know, I like everything about New York, especially, that it's -- if you look at -- around the streets, everything is wheelchair accessible, you know?

GUPTA: You're -- and I know people can't see you full, but your legs were amputated. How old were you when that happened? What did they tell you?

MABHENA: My legs were amputated because they were at the back so I used to sit on them. And it was also very difficult for me to sit on, like, a toilet seat. It was very difficult, so --

GUPTA: So, you're saying your legs literally were contracted behind you.

MABHENA: Yes. They were contracted behind me.

GUPTA: It made it difficult to use the toilet. And how old were you when this happened, the amputation?

MABHENA: I did the amputation when I was 8 years old.

GUPTA: At that time, a 6-year-old girl, an 8-year-old girl obviously having difficulties just simply moving around. Who was helping you? Did your mother? Did your father? Who tried to take care of you?

MABHENA: From 6 years I lived with my stepmom and my father. And that's when the life was very, very hard because I got less help from her. Most of the things that I would ask her to do for me, she would, you know, sometimes complain before she does it for me. So, it would also make me withdraw from her, from asking her.

GUPTA: And despite all that, despite the difficulties you faced physically and emotionally, with lack of resources -- right now, I'm talking to you while you're sitting in New York City and your life is a subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary. How does that make you feel?

MABHENA: At first, it was quite a shock when I -- when I heard the name of the movie being called out, you know?

GUPTA: Your name.

MABHENA: I thought it was like -- I thought it was a dream. I was so happy. I was thrilled. I didn't know what to do. I thought, well, this is my time.


GUPTA: All right. We got to take a quick break now. But we've got more with Prudence straight ahead and maybe we will actually get some music by Prudence. We'll ask her to sing.

Stay with us.




MABHENA: My name is Prudence Mabhena. I'm the lead singer in the Liyana band.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

Speaking with Prudence Mabhena -- she's a singer, she's a songwriter, and she's the focus of an Oscar-winning documentary.


GUPTA: Your singing voice -- I mean, you know, when I watched the documentary, I -- you start off, if I'm not mistaken, you start off with singing a song point fact that you dream of thousands of people listening to your singing one day. Is that right?

MABHENA: Yes. I've ever had a wish of singing -- you know, singing for thousands and thousands of people. Now, I have a wish of singing for millions and billions of people and, you know, from this, I think I'm very close.

GUPTA: You know, I don't typically ask people to do this and I don't want to put you on the spot, but you just said that you wanted to sing for millions of people, and I was really touched by your singing. Would you mind singing a little bit for us right now?

MABHENA: Singing?


MABHENA: OK. I'll sing one of the songs that were in the movie.

GUPTA: Please.

MABHENA: And this song I was taught by my grandmom, my maternal grandmom who stayed with me from the age of 3 months up to the age of 6, yes.


GUPTA: That's a treat. Thank you very much for that, Prudence. And a lot of people are really lucky to hear your voice.

You know, you -- I watch you, you smile. You have such a good attitude. Yet, it's no secret what your life has been like. What do you tell people who don't have any hope? How do they get hope back in their lives?

MABHENA: I send messages to people through music, and the song that we wrote that says, "Never give up," this song talks about the hardships that you can meet in life, the hardships that you can come across, and it says that fight your battle. You will get there. Move on. You shouldn't move and look back -- you know, look back and go on and look back, but just go on and you will get there, where you want to be.

GUPTA: Well said. It's been an honor.

Prudence, thanks so much. I really appreciate it. Thanks.

Good luck to you. Safe travels. And we hope to see you again very soon.

MABHENA: Thank you.


GUPTA: And you can see the amazing documentary about Prudence this week on HBO. It's called "Music by Prudence" and it debuts on May 12th.


GUPTA: The oil rig explosion and the spill that's been spreading really for more than two weeks now in the Gulf of Mexico could cost B.P. upwards of $3 billion. But the cost to the fish, shellfish in the Gulf, though -- well, that's not yet known. The government has banned fishing in the water stretching from eastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and that ban is going to be reassessed the next several days.

Experts think that fish egg, shrimp, coral, oysters are potentially the most at risk, and scientists say most of the oil is floating above the shellfish, but as dispersant chemicals break it up to allow for easier cleanup, more oil could settle on the ocean floor. That's where shellfish live and it could potentially make a big impact there. The long-term risk of all this is still unclear. We're going to be following it along.

We should also point out that while the Gulf Coast supplies about 75 percent of the shrimp we eat -- at this point, the area impacted by the spill supply is less than 25 percent of Louisiana seafood.

So, now, the question is: beyond the seafood risk, is there a real risk to your health? That's our medical mystery and that's next.


GUPTA: You know, the B.P. oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has created public health and some environmental concerns, as well, especially as it inches toward the shore. The question for a lot of people is: could your health be impacted by the oil spill?

And scientists, researchers are careful about this, but they say, possibly yes. And I want to tell you specifically what they're talking about. They're really talking about people with some sort of underlying condition -- specifically respiratory conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, severe asthma -- these people are especially high risk from the vapors in the air.

Also, you know, something else -- when it comes to vapors and mist dangers, petroleum vapors, mist as well dangers, they're irritating to the airways and at higher doses like people who are first responders working with the spill, they could be exposed to this. And that can cause what's known as a chemical pneumonia or a hydrocarbon pneumonia it's called, as well. This can obviously be quite devastating to someone especially if they have some sort of underlying lung or respiratory problem.

Now, we're going to continue following the story, bring you the latest on the cleanup efforts and on the impact on your health. Find out about the air quality in the Gulf region by logging on to the EPA Web site at

You know, this is -- this topic is something I've been focused on for some time. You can tune in to my special investigation on your health and the environment. It's called "Toxic Towns USA." Watch it right here on CNN, June 2nd at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern.

Now, if missed any part of today's show, be sure to check out my podcast,

And I just want to wish all the mothers out there, including my wife, my own mom. Here's a picture, a long time ago, mom, they do grow up fast, don't they?

Happy Mother's Day. Have a wonderful weekend.

And I'll just take just one more second if I could to thank somebody very special to me. She's been producing our show for a long time. She's decided to leave us and gone to much grander and better things. Karen Denice, right over there.

Thank you so much. I just wanted to give you a hug. KAREN DENICE, CNN PRODUCER: Absolutely.

GUPTA: This job is a lot harder than you realize.

DENICE: Very much.

GUPTA: But much better because of you.

DENICE: But easy to work with him.

GUPTA: All right. And remember, as always, it's the place for the answers to all your medical questions. Thanks for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Karen?

DENICE: Stay tuned for more news on CNN. It starts right now.