A tiny step forward for spinal cord injuries

Knut Olstad, who is paralyzed from the waist down, said he was able to regain some feeling after participating in a stem cell trial.

Story highlights

  • Two clinical trial participants have regained some feeling after stem cell injections
  • The results are considered encouraging in stem cell research
  • Experts caution that data are preliminary and more research is needed
  • One participant believes the stem cells have helped him regain sensation
As the sun rose over France on August 13, 2011, Knut Olstad was looking forward to continuing his bicycle journey along the Tour de France route. But by the end of the day, the vacation had taken a terrible turn that would change his life.
The 46-year-old financial consultant from Norway doesn't remember much about the accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He was shown pictures of himself lying on the ground with a broken back after being catapulted from his bike while trying to avoid a collision with a car.
After his initial recovery, Olstad searched the Internet for information that might get him out of the wheelchair he now uses to move around.
This is how he found a clinical trial conducted by StemCells Inc. at Balgrist University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. The company was looking for 12 recently paralyzed patients for a study of its product: purified human neural stems cells derived from donated fetal brain tissue.
The company was looking to see whether the cells were safe to use and could ultimately be a treatment for central nervous system disorders, including paralysis. Neural stem cells have the ability to grow into any type of cell found in the central nervous system.
While many patients with spinal cord injuries have put a lot of hope in stem cell research, the field has been very slow to move forward. StemCells Inc. was granted permission to conduct its study just a month after the world's first approved clinical trial testing human embryonic stem cells in humans was shut down by the biotech company Geron due to excessive costs. Geron was testing embryonic stem cells in paraplegics, too.
StemCells Inc. received approval to start the clinical trial in Switzerland using non-embryonic stem cells, called adult stem cells, which are not quite as controversial.
To qualify for the trial, patients had to have suffered a complete thoracic spinal cord injury within the past four to 12 months. This means their spinal cord was severely injured at the chest level, so they still have movement of their arms and hands but can't feel or move anything below the chest.
After a week of testing, Olstad got some good and bad news from Dr. Armin Curt, the main researcher for this study. The bad news, according to Curt, was that Olstad did indeed have a "complete" spinal cord injury. On the flip side, Olstad qualified for the study.
Four months after his accident, when researchers were confident that Olstad's condition would no longer improve naturally, he was wheeled into an operating room where 20 million neural stem cells were injected.
Knut Olstad rides his bike just 20 minutes before his accident in August 2011.